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Budget passes Second Time Around

squeezeThere were several other concerns raised, and criticisms lobbed throughout the meeting, as the Court struggled to find answers for questions concerning the County’s financial issues before passing final approval of the 2016-17 budget.

The Fiscal Court at first balked on passing the budget, with three Magistrates voting against it, threatening to shut down County government.

But, further discussion, and a promise from Judge Executive Doug Stephens to present a proposal for a possible solution to the Jail situation at the July meeting prompted a second vote, which ultimately passed.

When the first vote came, three Magistrates: Roger Phillips, Jason Mann and Duston Baird voted against passing the budget as presented, but after more discussion the matter was brought up for a second vote – ultimately passing with only Magistrate Mann voting “nay.”

Judge Executive Doug Stephens opened the budget discussion noting the only change from the first reading passed last month was a small $61 adjustment in the allotment for the Law Librarian line item.

Magistrate Roger Phillips opened with questions how exactly Judge Stephens expected to reduce costs for inmate housing by $150,000 based on what was spent the past year, noting the costs exceeded $750,000 this year and there were no signs of relief on the horizon.

“It is our hope that things are going to change,” Stephens said.

The Judge noted he and County Attorney Conley Chaney were hoping for some changes in how the County handles inmates, such as getting them the option to bond out sooner, alleviating the need for longer housing.

“It is kind of a false hope,” Phillips responded, before criticizing the jail budget for not including sufficient maintenance costs for the transport vehicles.

The Magistrate then turned to uncollected fees, such as the 911 surcharge all county phone land-lines are supposed to pay.

The it was noted that while the fees collected from the surcharge are expected to continue to diminish as land-line usage drops, but the County continues to receive revenue through the CMRS cell-phone fees. Stephens also hinted at the possibly of placing the 911 fee along with utility bills, such as water bills, as a means to collect the fee.

“As a leader you need to be looking at ways to collect what we got coming in before we look at increasing revenue,” Phillips said.

“If we don’t start collecting some of this money we have out here, how can you say we need more money?”

Phillips returned to the Jail situation, asking if the Judge had any plans for a way to provide relief to the county over the increasing costs.

The Judge assured the Magistrate that he planned to present some options during the regular-scheduled July meeting.

Phillips questioned how Jailer Jessie Hatfield’s cell-phone bill was disconnected, asking how a monthly bill could fall through the cracks and be misplaced.

“Do we have too many duties on Mr. (Deputy Judge Randy) Jones?” Phillips asked. “In years past we have blamed the Finance Officer for bills not being paid, and we’re not now.”

When Stephens reiterated it was simply human error that prompted the shut off, and all bills were currently paid now that the Payment in Lieu of Taxes payment had been received from the U.S. Park Service.

Phillips also raised concerns over the budget for the McCreary County Extension Service.

Phillips noted last year the Court approved a budget for the service that totaled $39,000. A month later, when the Court passed the budget for the coming fiscal year, that amount had risen to about $44,000.

Phillips stated he had read the minutes from those meetings and could not find a mention of the increase in cost being presented to the Court and wondered why they weren’t informed.

Judge Stephens said it must have been an oversight, noting it would be “stupid” for him to try and slip a change in the budget without informing the Court.

“It’s hard for me to make a decision if we don’t get the whole truth,” Phillips responded. “It doesn’t add up.”

Extension Agent Greg Whitis was on hand to explain the increases, which includes another $4,000 in this budget, was a result of budget cuts from the University of Kentucky, which results in the counties with Extension Offices mandated to pay more to keep the service.

Phillips said he was in favor of keeping the Extension service, but bemoaned the fact that UK forced the raise, while McCreary County could not afford to give it’s own employees a raise.

“There are too many mandates,” he said.

Other questions were raised concerning a $6,600 stipend for Narcotics Enforcement through the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force.

Magistrate Duston Baird reminded the Court that when the same line item was approved last year, the Magistrates had asked for regular updates from the agency as a means of showing the people what that money was being spend on.

Over the past year there had been no presentations to the Fiscal Court from the LCADTF, but Agent Robbie Clark was in attendance at this meeting and noted he wouldn’t be able to provide specific details of the cases due to ongoing investigations, but noted his agency had opened 46 cases in the past year, and through the course of several cases was able to send upwards of $30,000 to the McCreary County Sheriff’s Department to be used to purchase equipment.

Clark stated he would be able to provide a biannual update in the future to the Court to keep them informed of some of the work that is being done.

With that discussion ended, Judge Stephens called for a vote to pass the second reading of the budget.

With only the Judge Executive Stephens and Magistrate O.L. Perry voting in favor, the motion failed to pass, prompting Judge Stephens to caution the Court that failure to have a budget in place by the end of June year could threaten County operations.

“Basically, if we don’t pass a budget by the end of the fiscal year, we will have to shut down County government on July 1,” Stephens warned.

Magistrate Phillips again questioned how the Judge was able to justify reducing the expected costs for housing inmates in the current version of the budget.

“You’re going to have to show me where you are going to be able to do this $600,000, verses the $750,000,” Phillips said. “I’m tired of kicking the can down the road. I think it is time to solve the problem, or shut it down.”

Judge Stephens asked Phillips if he had a solution for the Jail, to which Phillips responded:

“If it was up to me I would have been working on that before,” he said bringing up the number of times Judge Stephens said he had been contacting DOC officials.

“Jason (Mann) asks one time and gets them down here a week later,” Phillips said.

“I think it is lack of leadership. I think you are going to have to do more than sit up here. Nothing is going to come if we don’t ask.”

“I feel like you don’t want the jail back open,” he concluded. “All we are doing is kicking it down to the next year, and the next year.”

“Oh, I do because that is going to solve a bunch of our issues,” Stephens responded.

County Attorney Chaney joined the discussion noting that the visit from Department of Corrections Commissioner Rodney Ballard last week was not promising, but he was hopeful that the DOC may grant the County permission to use the holding cells in the courthouse as a booking station may come to fruition.

He did note that he did not think the DOC could prevent the County from re-opening the Jail, if the Court so wished, but doing so would place a huge burden of liability on the County if an accident or injury occurred.

Talk turned to the possibility of repairing the old jail or building a new facility.

Phillips advocated spending one or two million dollars on repairing the old jail, to at least bring it up to standards to house county inmates.

While the question of the physical stability of the building would have to be addressed first, Phillips stated he believed it would be more affordable for the County to follow that path.

Magistrate Baird countered that the County would be better off building a new facility, which could potentially house state and federal inmates, would be a better alternative.

Phillips questioned where the money would come from to build a jail with expected costs of at least $10 million with the County already struggling to pay the bills and stated something had to be done.

“If we keep doing what we are doing we’re going to go nowhere,” he said.

“I’m tired of kicking the can down the road,” Phillips responded. “We can fix it, or we can shut it down. That’s the bottom line.”

The Judge again promised that he was preparing to present an option for a solution at the next meeting, stating that he believes new construction is the answer.

“I think we need a new jail, I think that’s our only option,” he said.

With that assurance, Magistrate Phillips made a motion to bring the budget back up for a vote, which was seconded by Magistrate O.L. Perry.

The second time around, the measure passed with a 4-1 vote. Only Magistrate Mann voted against, noting he still had issues with “other stuff” in the budget.

With the budget passed, the Fiscal Court moved on to the other agenda items, such as approving the bid for on-site drug testing and resolutions for the McCreary County Ambulance Service to proceed with applying for grants for new power stretchers and financing for the new ambulance to provide non-emergency transfer services.

The Court’s final action was to approve a change to the Administrative Code concerning vacation days for employees.

It was explained to the Court that under the old system some employees, who had been working for over 10-years, were allowed up to three weeks vacation time per year, but were only allowed to accrue one day for every month worked – meaning they would have to work 18-months before they could bank enough days to take the full amount.

The new code would fix that oversight, and would also allow employees to “cash-out” up to one week of vacation per year, effectively taking the pay, while still working.

Deputy PVA Joanie Carson asked what impact the cash-out system would have on the budget, and if any study was done to see if it could be afforded.

She was informed that, while no study was done, it would have a small effect, due to the limited number of employees that have over 10 years of service with the county, which, at this time, total only a few at the Ambulance Service and one at the Judge Executive’s Office.

Judge Stephens said the change in code was a way to retain employees and reward those with long service in lieu of being able to give raises.

The measure passed 5-0.

The McCreary County Fiscal Court will meet for the first time in the 2016-17 fiscal year on July 14 at 6:00 p.m. at the courthouse.

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