No answers yet for budget crisis
Meeting in special session Tuesday night the McCreary County Fiscal Court faced more than an hour and a half of often heated comments from the public over the projected budget deficit.
A capacity crowd was on hand for the meeting, which was held on Tuesday instead of the typical Thursday due to a conference the Court was due to attend, as they expected action on a possible Occupational Tax increase or an insurance tax.
Neither of those options were on the agenda, however, and will likely be addressed at another special meeting in the coming weeks.
While regular business lasted only about 15 minutes, the citizen participation portion dominated most of the nearly two-hour meeting.
Much of the discussion was a continuation of grievances and concerns from last week’s meeting, but some new information was learned, pointing to possible actions by the Fiscal Court in the near future.
Judge Stephens was asked what thoughts he had about erasing the projected deficit, and when the citizens would be able to hear the plan.
The Judge Executive replied he expected to call another special session, possibly within the next two weeks, where potential budget cuts and ways of raising revenue would be discussed.
“I plan to look at everything that can be cut,” he said.
But, Stephens warned, those potential cuts will not be popular, and would probably not be passed.
The Fiscal Court is only mandated to fund certain functions, such as prisoner housing. Other items, such as the Ambulance Service and 911 are not required to be funded. Stephens had previously stated he has no desire to take those services away from the public.
He continued by stating the proposed insurance tax, which could allegedly raise up to $1 million in revenue, would likely be taken off the table due to negative feedback from the citizens.
“The bottom line is I think we need a tax,” he said. “My preference is to increase the Occupational Tax.”
Many citizens in attendance, while not happy with the thoughts of increased taxes, did concede that they would pay additional taxes if they knew what the money was being spent on – such as a new jail.
“A man don’t mind to pay a little tax if they see something come out of it,” said Lonnie Creekmore.
“If you are going to impose a tax, we don’t care to do that, we just want to see something in return,” echoed Brian Hill.
Much of the discussion focused on the jail, both on the issues that caused it to close in the first place, and the possibility of building a new facility.
Creekmore was critical of the Judge Executive’s Office and the Fiscal Court, accusing them of “sleeping” and loosing the jail in 2013.
Judge Stephens countered that the jail was not closed due to the physical condition of the facility, but the decision was made on account of other factors.
While not naming him directly, Stephens seemed to place blame on former Jailer Tony Ball, noting the Department of Corrections advised the County to “not spend another dime” on the facility due to lack of management at the Jail.
Magistrate Roger Phillips agreed that he sees a need to build a new jail, but cautioned that it would be an expensive gamble for the County to undertake.
While housing state and federal inmates would offset some of the operating costs of any facility, he noted the state is looking at housing prisoners in two privately-run jails, which would take those prisoners away from every county jail in the state, leaving those counties to deal with the loss of revenue.
A new jail, which is more likely to happen than refurbishing the old jail, is estimated to cost approximately $2 million each year once debt services, increased staffing costs and expenses are factored in. Compared to about a $1.1 million cost as it currently stands, the County would still need a way to generate additional revenue to operate.
Stephens conceded that state and federal prisoners would help bring that cost down, but there would be no guarantee of getting those inmates.
When asked about the current financial state of the County, Stephens said while current expenses are at about 58 percent of the budget, nearly 80 percent of expected revenue has already been collected, putting the County close to not being able to pay bills.
He amended an earlier estimate about the projected shortfall, saying now that current figures indicate the County will be about $300,000 short at the end of the fiscal year, as opposed to the original estimate of $350,000. That number does not include an additional $200,000, which was borrowed from the Road Fund at the start of the fiscal year, which would also need to be repaid. Stephens had said he anticipated being able to pay back the loan once PILT payments from the Forest Service come in.
One citizen asked about enforcing the existing Occupational Tax ordinance and going after “free floating businesses” who are not registered with the OC Tax office.
Stephens said the Tax Administrator is going over a list of all commercial property on the county (provided by the PVA’s Office) and is contacting owners to ensure they are registered to pay tax if qualified.
Magistrate Phillips spoke up and stated he believed the County needed to implement some type of business license. He noted he voted for such a license last year when the Chamber of Commerce presented an ordinance to the Fiscal Court.
Chamber of Commerce President, Susie Strunk Thompson, said the Chamber would be willing to bring the ordinance back before the Court, but urged the citizens to support it.
She noted people complained to their Magistrates the last time the issue was before the Court, prompting many to vote against it. “You have to get behind it,” Thompson said.
Many more comments concerning health insurance, possible furloughs and other topics were heard as well before the meeting adjourned at 7:48 p.m.