When considering who to buy gifts for this holiday season, local residents may want to add Clay County to their lists.
Assigned the task of paring down the 2005 budget by $600,000, members of the Clay County Council seemed bewildered Monday evening as they weighed their streamlining options.
Joining the discussion of Council President Warren Stevenson and Council members Rita Rothrock, Mark Dierdorf, Larry Moss, Warren Stevenson, Michael McCullough, John Price and Les Harding were Auditor Joseph Dierdorf, First Deputy Auditor Mary Jo Alumbaugh and Clay County Commissioners David Parr, Daryl Andrews and Buddy Knox.
Unsure of the legality of forbidding elected county officials to hire new employees, the Council decided to send letters strongly urging against adding new positions or filling newly vacant openings. While the Council plans to take a closer look at budget reduction tactics in preparation for its January meeting, Alumbaugh stressed the importance of increasing miscellanous income, saying that the county does accept charitable donations.
"Miscellaneous income hasn't grown with the rate of inflation," she said. "We've taken a hit on everything, and CAGIT (County Adjusted Gross Income Tax) is staying the same."
With interest rates so low, there is less to invest, Parr said. "The more Clay County tries to grow, the harder it's going to be."
"We don't get our share," Alumbaugh continued, referring to lost excise tax from pickup truck license plates, and urged the group to get in touch with state legislators. "We pay someone else's excise tax. That would make a tremendous impact."
Because excise tax is not levied on pickup trucks, rural county leaders often feel their county is not getting its fair share of tax revenue.
"No budgets are fluffed up or frivolous," said Joseph Dierdorf, who has already informed his staff future layoffs are a possibility.
Cuts may have to be made across the board in every office. McCullough said that while it is a shame the county wasn't notified it had overbudgeted until long after the 2005 budget was approved, it would be incredibly unfair to move forward with hiring new employees only to be forced to let them go after a short time. The decision to advise against new hires could encompass positions like that of Emergency Management Coordinator Gerri Husband, who announced her resignation at the Monday meeting of the Commissioners with the recommendation her husband Bryan be considered as a replacement.
Husband plans to move into a new grant-funded position later in December. The group noted the county pays only part of her salary -- half comes from federal funding -- and Andrews pointed out Husband's efforts have produced several hundred thousand dollars in grant monies for county needs.
The Council also discussed the benefits of a property reassessment, particularly of training a local person for the job. No new funds would come to the area, but that strategy would enable lowering taxes.
While property owners who believe they've been overassessed can appeal the assessment, there are others whose property is underassessed, Moss said. But the problem is really at the state level, McCullough added.
"Small towns are suffering all over the state," Alumbaugh said. "We are not unique."
While some taxpayers might look to the new jail as a significant source of budget strain, the Council explained, its funding is actually coming from the CAGIT tax increase of a quarter of a percent.
The county has planned to gradually increase the jail staff in preparation for the new building's projected September completion, but some Council members question the number of personnel and note the importance of additions to the Clay County Sheriff's Dept. as methamphetamine problems persist in the area.
But Harding said, "We want to be very careful about taking too many bites out of the jail. I would hesitate very strongly in cutting what we've been building up to. And the sheriff's deputies -- that's a whole different ballgame."
If members of the Council cannot determine areas to cut in time, the Dept. of Local and Government Finance (DLGF) will do it for them. And it will remove funds as easily as possible, Alumbaugh said, most likely from the Commissioners.
"Bottom line-somebody's going to take it out," Joseph Dierdorf said.
Meanwhile, an app-roved appropriation of $60,000 for the Community Extension Office initially baffled some Council members.
Alumbaugh explained the money for the building was figured into the 2004 budget.
"If you're gonna do it, you better do it now, because you won't have the money for it next year," she said.
The Clay County Council regularly meets at 6 p.m. the first Monday of the month at the courthouse. Meetings are open to the public.