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09/11/2019

County Board Starts 2020 Budget Process, Talks Raises

 

The Mississippi County Quorum Court’s Finance Committee began the 2020 budget process Monday by studying projected revenues to determine how much money will be available to departments next year.

“Truly, the revenue projections form the backbone and basis of a sound budget,” said Justice Michael White, chairman of the Finance Committee.

Along with looking at the highpoints of the projected revenue, the committee discussed potential raises for county employees.

White said typically, justices ask the departments to keep salaries the same in their submitted budgets, then they consider adding either raises or bonuses after poring over all the numbers.

Mississippi County Clerk Janice Currie asked if she could add in a three percent raise, and White suggested submitting her budget with a line that shows with and without a pay hike.

He asked Currie if employees preferred a three percent raise or an across-the-board increase as the county has done in recent years.

“The across-the-board was much better,” Currie said. “I think they saw more of a change with the across-the-board. They immediately saw it, whereas that three percent, it was a small here, here, here. They just thought it was so much more.”

Justice Neil Burge pointed out some employees get more than a three percent increase and others less than three percent with an across-the-board raise.

“I’m not advocating, but across-the-board decreases the gap between the lower spectrum and the upper spectrum,” Justice Burge said. “If you give percentage raises, that gap continues to widen all the time. Across-the-board actually narrows it. So, it’s just which way you want to go.”

Mississippi County Judge John Alan Nelson said the county has made “big strides” in moving employees towards the mid-point salary.

Currie asked if employees get raises, could they also receive a bonus.

“They are going to want the bonus rather than the raise,” Currie said.

White noted during the budget process last year, “we got leaned on really hard to do both because we had given an across-the-board raise, and we were looking at another across-the-board raise.”

The quorum court agreed to both a raise and bonus last year, which cost about $500,000.

“I don’t see us doing that again this year if we give another decent across-the-board raise,” White said. “We’ve done really well for our employees, with $2,500 the last two years. If we do something kind of along that line, I just don’t think we can afford to do both even though we did last year. I just don’t think we can continue to do that. I wouldn’t be banking on a bonus. I’d be banking and hoping for a decent raise again.”

Nelson asked if they could make the raise part of the salary that comes due at the end of the year.

“It’s almost like a Christmas Club,” White said.

Meanwhile, White pointed out that county treasurer Peggy Meatte has been out for the last several days taking care of her ill husband, and once she returns the committee will have more concrete numbers.

White did provide 2020 revenue projections for each county fund, touching on each one.

He pointed out that the county can only budget 90 percent of projected revenue, though it has “some breathing room” and should be able to meet all the county’s needs for 2020.

The 2020 projected total revenue for the general fund is $9,465,350.

“It’s a rough draft,” said finance director Kelli Jones, who has taken on some of Meatte’s duties while she is out. “I think it’s a pretty good start.”

The county is benefiting from Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) collections, according to White. One example he cited is Plum Point, which had gone through the city of Osceola for its PILOT agreement.

The corporation pays the city and then the city sends the money where it’s supposed to go, White noted.

“With Plum Point, we were supposed to get about $186,000 a year, and Osceola went through a rough patch in their city government where they changed finance directors like three times in 18 months,” White said. “And our check got dropped. They went four years without paying. So, when we figured that one out in (county assessor) Mr. Harley’s (Bradley) office, we got with (former Osceola) Mayor (Dickie) Kennemore. It was quite a sum of money and they didn’t have the money on hand just to write a check. So we’ve got an agreement with the city where they double pay us, and we’re still in that process.”

He added that Big River Steel paid its tax bill last month.

“We are really seeing an improvement in our overall revenue structure because of the economic development tax and projects that we’ve done,” White said. “The economic development half-cent sales tax is truly paying the county back now. It has really helped us on our revenues.”

The economic development tax is projected to generate $3,368,994 in 2020.

Meanwhile, Judge Nelson noted the state may increase what it pays per prisoner, possibly moving from $28 per inmate per day to a $41 rate, which would lower the amount that county general supplements the jail.

The county jail operates on a ¼-cent tax and jail fees, with county general covering the remaining expenses — about 50 percent of the jail budget.

The county used a 1-cent tax to build the jail, but ¾ of the tax sunset, leaving ¼-cent for maintenance and operation.

“I wish we would have kept a half of that instead of a quarter,” White said.

“We would have been in a different situation,” responded Judge Nelson, who was on the quorum court at the time of its passage.

The ¼ cent tax is projected to generate $1,678,112 next year.

“That does not run the jail,” White said. “When we get into expenditures, you’re going to see nearly a $4 million jail budget. Yes, it helps, but it does not fix it.”

Jail fees bring in another $354,000, with the bulk coming from the state and city of Blytheville.

At the $28 rate, the state is projected to pay $250,000 next year, while the proposed city of Blytheville jail fees add up to about $119,000.

Justice Molly Houseworth Jackson asked if the law now allows the sheriff’s department to hire a collection agency to collect old fines, which are about $9-10 million.

“How much of that is collectable?” White questioned.

Jackson noted if the county collected 10 percent it would bring in close to $1 million.

“My thoughts have always been, if you’ve got the power to put somebody in jail, I’m not sure how a collection agency (would do any better),” Judge Nelson said. “But it’s possible. I think it has been successful in other parts of the state.”

County general also heavily subsidizes the Senior Citizens Center, providing about 40 percent of its funding, according to White.

The Senior Citizens projected revenue is $524,714 for 2020 with $238,202 coming from county general.

“My personal opinion, Senior Citizens is one of the most important projects that we fund outside of specific county services,” White said. “They service so many people in the county, particularly with the Meals on Wheels.”

In other news, the Finance Committee heard from Mississippi County Election Commission chairman Tom Wiktorek and election coordinator Melisa Logan who expect to decrease the election equipment and supplies line by $100,000.

Logan noted the state is paying 74 percent of the required election equipment expense instead of the 50 percent initially thought, awarding the county $392,984.

“They also said that if we can make any savings, then we could retain the savings,” Wiktorek said.

Also, Logan noted the coordinator is budgeted for 26 hours per week, but during an election year, as 2020 will be, the position requires more hours than that.

She suggested increasing the hours every other year when there is an election.

“18-hour days ought to be compensated,” Wiktorek said. “She’s (Logan) put them in several times.”

Meanwhile, county collector Susan Goff McCormick reported that online property tax payments, which started in mid-July, have been about $45,000.

She said the 2.85 percent fee for making the payment online goes to the company, not the county, though the firm does not charge the county for providing the service as it makes money on the fee.

McCormick noted the county has collected late drainage taxes because of the new online payment method.

In other news, Judge Nelson said he wants to begin setting money aside in new funds to cover future expenses such as roof repairs and HVAC.

“Let’s get in front of some of the problems that will occur in future years,” Nelson said. “If we know that we are going to need to plan on an HVAC unit in say five years, and we get the cost down on what that may end up to be, and we divide that by five and fund some of these accounts, then we will be prepared to meet some of these obligations when they get here. We will already have the funding.”

The Finance Committee plans to review the budgets of the Health Department and County Clerk next Monday afternoon.