Even the Commissioners had no agenda to look at, although they did have printed copies of the draft budget, which the public could only see as it scrolled by on the screen at yesterday morning’s Lowndes County Commission Budget Work Session, which was over by 10AM even though it was announced as 8:30AM to 5PM. However, it is good that they had this Work Session in public. County Clerk Paige Dukes told Gretchen afterwards that no draft budget would be available to the public until after two changes requested by the Chairman were incorporated. She did not say when that would be finished or when the draft budget would be available so taxpayers could comment. She did refer people to last year’s budget. The slides that Finance Director Stephanie Black presented do provide an interesting high level overview. Other than Commissioners and very few staff, the only people in the room were VDT reporter Joe Adgie, someone unidentified, and Gretchen taking these LAKE videos so you can see what happened.
Call to Order and Presentation
Video. A yay was heard on SPLOST V jail operations cost being down. That doesn’t mean total jail operations costs are down, though; just that SPLOST V projects are being completed. Later, in General Fund Overview, Finance Director Stephanie Black did say public safety expenses (presumably including the jail) were down 0.29%, which she characterized as basically flat (unchanged).
71% of general fund comes from property taxes, and 27.30% from LOST. 37.92% of general fund expenditures go to Public Safety, while 10.76% to Judicial. So almost half of the General Fund goes to law and order, and a lot of that to locking people up.
Of property taxes, 37% goes to the Sheriff’s office, 16% to Public Works, 11% to Court Services, 8% to Board of Commissioners and Administration, 7% to VLPRA, 6% to the Development Authority, 4% to Other “includes outside agency support”, 3% to the Tax Assessors, 2% each to Tax Commissioner, Engineering Services, and Other Emergency Services, and 1% each to Election Services, Contingency, and Animal Control. Yep, Election Services are down in the 1% noise, yet lack of funding has been an excuse for closing voting precincts.
They continued all county services (well, except the privatized solid waste collection, still in disarray) by not giving employees any cost of living increases (although a “small merit increase”), by not hiring anybody (although insurance payments increased), and by “limited new vehicles and computers”, all because they weren’t brave enough when they raised the millage to raise it enough not to be stingy, even though there was very little public opposition and some public support for higher millage. And even though even the raised rate is less than in surrounding counties.
Is it any wonder that former Utilities Director Mike Allen got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Hilton Head, South Carolina?
Video. Commissioner Mark Wisenbaker wanted to know what the Contingency item was. Answer: for unforseen things that come up.
Detailed Budget Presentation by Stephanie Black
Video. Total tax revenue is $44.8 million, relatively flat at 0.90% increase. Be sure to memorize the column headers, because they only show up once at the beginning before so much scrolling Commissioner Demarcus Marshall commented on it.
Joe Adgie’s VDT story, $274K budget request raises some eyebrows, focussed on the Sheriff’s office:
The line item, identified only as “Contractual Services — Other” was debated at Monday’s opening round of hearings for the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget.
The spending increase in question is slated to increase the amount allocated for that line in the budget by 5,384 percent, from $5,000 to $274,200.
Stephanie Black, director of finance for the county said the sheriff’s office is hoping to purchase a state-of-the-art computer software package for radio dispatch that would mirror technology being used by the Valdosta Police Department. Black said polygraph tests, physicals and copier fees were included in the increase.
Lowndes County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Slaughter said he believes the county would be moving in the right direction to earmark funds to the sheriff’s office for the software.
See for yourself at 19m in the LAKE video.
See also Commissioner Demarcus Marshall pointing out they had been told the existing software is “top of the line”, and it’s disturbing now to go in a different direction, at 23m40s. Longwinded response from County Manager Joe Pritchard included
This system written by the Regional Commission is more oriented towards the person on the street, seems to be simplified to some degree, would perhaps require some additional work on the back end, but if you have that net RMS system that is extremely robust…. Not only that, but the newest version is eligible to be obtained by Lowndes County at a significantly reduced price… If you have a department that is not utilized by that system, then the feeling was that they would need to have something that they would use.
Commissioner Joyce Evans wanted to know what they deleted to add this. Answer from Pritchard: nothing, other than various other reductions. Chairman Bill Slaughter also attempted to answer, only making it more clear that none of the Commissioners really understand software and support pricing (“we’ve had those discussions” but “we’re currently moving forward with looking into this”), and they’d not really thought about offsetting this purchase. IT Director Aaron Kostyu was not there to explain.
This may well be a good purchase, but it’s curious how law enforcement gets basically whatever it wants while county staff get no cost of living increases. There were more questions from Commissioners about this item. Too bad Commissioners didn’t ask such questions back when the county privatized trash collection or approved that Exclusive Franchise; they might have found it was possible to balance the budget for solid waste.
Detailed Budget Presentation by S. Black (part 2)
Video. Jail, Animal Control, 911, EMS, coroner, public works, etc. Commissioner Demarcus Marshall asked about Contractual Services for the Coroner. Answer: there are none, but Professional Services include attorney fees and transport and storage. And still no decision on moving the Coroner into “that facility next to us”.
There were many questions from Commissioner about what various opaque item labels meant, such as “Again no budget for feed the elderly.” Staff seemed to find that question quite funny. County Manager Joe Pritchard said previously it was funded by the county but only through private donations secured by Commissioner Evans for the past five or so years, because SGRC is the contract agency for the regional program on aging. The relevant building (apparently on Griffin Avenue) is in very bad shape. But now “the requirements are such” that this program will no longer qualify (apparently due to low participation numbers) under the area agency for agency. Commissioner Evans gets to arrange for it to be absorbed into other external programs such as Meals on Wheels.
So the current Lowndes County government plans to do nothing to feed the elderly. Quite a change from back during the Great Depression, when the county went into debt to help people who were struggling.
Detailed Budget Presentation by S. Black (part 3)
Video. Library shows a 3.5% decrease, but the Moody Library may change that. VLPRA and VLCIA show no change.
Commissioner Demarcus Marshall wanted to know what else they could do to prepare for HB 170 (the state seizure of motor fuel excise taxes). Answer from County Manager Joe Pritchard involved funding from SPLOST and LMIG and good relations with GDOT, and basically no, nothing else.
Chairman Bill Slaughter said he expected next Georgia legislature session the hotel lobby would be trying to somehow fix the $5 per room hotel tax imposed by HB 170.
Pritchard referred to “a report last night” that said Pennsylvania had a 20% failure rate on their bridges and a key connector with a century-old trestle that doesn’t always lock back in place correctly, thus backing up traffic, with 500 trains a day. His point was that by comparison Lowndes County is in pretty good shape.
Another point might be that we need better state and national legislators who will stop throwing away the present and future of the country. And I didn’t hear our local elected officials say anything about public transportation for here.
Here’s a video playlist:
Videos: Budget Work Session
Budget Work Session, Lowndes County Commission (LCC Budget),
Video by Gretchen Quarterman for Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE),
327 N. Ashley St., Valdosta, GA 31601, 18 May 2015.