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Budget battle begins

Questions over housing inmates and other expenditures dominated much of the May Fiscal Court meeting Thursday night as the Court begins preparations to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Court opened discussion on the budget, with Judge Executive Doug Stephens noting the costs for housing prisoners has been a major burden on county finances.

Judge Executive Doug Stephens stated the County is facing an estimated overrun of $300,000 for the end of this fiscal year and a $450,000 deficit in the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, making it unbalanced at this time.

With $7,102,080 listed in expected revenues and $7,552,357 as projected expenses, the Fiscal Court would need to find a way to make up the deficit through increased revenues, or cut expenses before passing the budget, since by law they are not able to submit an unbalanced budget to the state for approval.

The revenue prediction is about $80,000 less than last year’s budget.

Needing to present a balanced budget to Frankfort before July 1, Judge Stephens hinted at what may be a need for a tax increase on the citizens of the County.

“We need to see what we possibly can cut,” Stephens said. “But, I don’t see we can cut much.”

He noted a higher than expected cost of housing McCreary County prisoners in other facilities since the closure of the McCreary County Jail in 2013 is largely to blame for the financial woes.

“The bottom line is the Jail is a killer on the budget,” Stephens said. “Housing is one thing beyond our control. We have to explore additional revenue opportunities.”

The proposed Jail budget shows an increase of over $250,000 for housing costs, reflecting the projected extra expense related to a higher than expected number of prisoners being housed.

Jailer Jessie Hatfield commented the average number of prisoners being housed is up to 50 to 60 per day, as opposed to the average of about 30 when he took the position last year.

Hatfield noted a significant reason for the increase is due to the court system going after negligent child support payees, and those offenders are often held without bail.

One Magistrate, Roger Phillips, questioned why the jail budget seems to increase every year.

“I blame the Judge a little,” Phillips stated. “I feel he led the Fiscal Court to believe it would be cheaper.”

Phillips was referring to comments made during the initial discussion of the Jail closure in 2013 when the first transport and housing budget was put in place showing a distinct decrease in the Jail budget.

“I wish I had my vote back,” Phillips said. “I feel like we were lied to.”

Judge Stephens responded by saying jail costs are hurting county budgets across the state, and he is constantly seeking advice and help from state officials to help alleviate the growing costs.

Phillips stated he would not be in favor of a tax increase, noting there may be items in the budget that can be cut to make up the shortfall.

One item he mentioned was the possibility of cutting the pay for transport officers.

When the program was established, the officers were paid at an hourly rate, including a pay rate for on-call time. It was later revised to a straight $50 per transport, representing four hours at a rate of $12.50 per hour.

Phillips noted that many prisoners were being housed closer to McCreary than when the program started, and believed transports were not taking four hours any longer.

“I feel like everything should be on the table,” he said. Both Magistrates Jason Mann and Duston Baird echoed the statement.

“I’m telling you right straight up, I’m not voting for no tax increase,” Phillips concluded.

Judge Stephens called for a special session on Friday at 3:30 p.m. for a first reading of the budget.

He asked the Magistrates to come up with possible solutions and/or cuts in order to balance the budget.

More verbal sparring between Phillips and Stephens came during a discussion of an agreement between Weddle Enterprises and the County regarding waiving potential claims over the construction of the McCreary County Park.

Last month it was reported the Fiscal Court approved the Judge Executive to sign the agreement, putting an end to the possible legal fight, and freeing up over $200,000 in a special Park Fund that can now be used for improvements at the facilities managed by the Park Board.

After discussing using some of that funding to purchase a new lawn mower for the park, Phillips questioned Judge Stephens over the use of rental fees collected from usage of the park building and 4-H Camp, to pay bills without informing the Park Board.

“At our last (Park Board) meeting we couldn’t pay a bill since the money was already spent,” Phillips stated. “If you’re spending money that we don’t know about, how can we trust you on anything?”

The Judge apologized for the expenditure without notifying the Board, but noted it was spent on utility bills for the facility.

Phillips said he and Magistrate Duston Baird, both members of the Park Board, looked “foolish” for not knowing the money was not in the account, and stated one member walked out of the meeting after learning of the spent funds.

Phillips used the opportunity to criticize the lack of information flowing from the Judge’s office.

“You ask us to make these decisions when we don’t have all the information,” he stated.

In a separate, but related topic, Magistrate Phillips questioned Occupational Tax Director Stephanie Tucker for an update on attempts to collect on past due accounts.

Tucker stated about 8 to 10 summonses had been issued, but have yet to be served.

Magistrate Philips stated he believed it would be in the best interest of local law enforcement to serve those summonses, since the Fiscal Court pays part of the salaries.

After the meeting Phillips spoke with Sheriff Randy Waters and learned that the Sheriff’s Office was not informed the summonses were issued, and would gladly take steps to try and get them served.

The summonses were listed on e-warrants, and would typically only have been found if one of the individuals were stopped for other reasons.

Sheriff Waters said Monday he would take steps to serve the misdemeanor summonses, but noted some are from out of state, and could only send a certified letter in an attempt to serve.

In other Fiscal Court business Thursday:

Representatives from the Southeast Kentucky Industrial Development Authority spoke to the Court regarding the Southeast Kentucky Business Park. The Park was created in 1999 through coal severance funding from McCreary, Knox, Bell, Clay and Whitley counties, and serves as a regional industrial park for those communities (later Laurel County was included in the partnership as well.)

Through the industrial park’s efforts, each of the participating counties receives a share of the occupational tax generated through businesses located within the 600 -acre facility. In 2014 McCreary County received about $27,000 in funding it was noted.

Bruce Carpenter, the Executive Director, asked the McCreary County Fiscal Court to consider budgeting funds to go toward marketing for the park. Carpenter noted Whitley County gives the authority $10,000 per year, but admitted no other funds come from other county’s Fiscal Courts.

No action was taken on the request at that time.

The Court also approved the 2016-17 Health Insurance plan through Anthem. Judge Stephens noted it would be an increase of 1.7 percent over last year’s quote, averaging about $7 per employee per month. It was noted the increase was the lowest offered to the county in recent years, and significantly lower than other companies.

A special session has been called for Friday, May 20 at 3:30 p.m. in order to discuss and possibly pass the first reading on the budget.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the McCreary County Fiscal Court will be on Thursday, June 9 at 6:00 p.m.

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