The Clay County Council has decided to take extra time to consider all possible options before making a difficult decision.
During the final day of budget hearings Thursday, the council approved cuts in each of the proposed budgets they had tentatively agreed upon the first two days. Of the cuts made, $758,662 came from budgets affected by the property tax levy (General, Reassessment, Cumulative Capital Development, Health, Aviation and Cumulative Bridge).
The cuts included freezing salary figures to those approved for 2009, but left the council slightly more than $700,000 shy of their goal of reducing those budgets a total of $1,460,347, thus creating a major dilemma for the council to decide how to make up the large shortfall.
Multiple options were considered, including reducing the proposed operating balance, which was at $500,000, utilizing a portion of the Rainy Day Fund or, as an absolute last resort, reconsidering the number of county employees. While the Rainy Day Fund currently carries a balance of more than $1.4 million, large chunks are spoken for with $450,000 set to pay for the county's health insurance plan, and another $350,000 being saved back to pay potential expenses incurred from the upcoming murder trial of John Lovett, which will take place in Hendricks County.
Each of the seven council members was visibly conflicted on how to handle the situation.
"The offices were prepared for cutbacks and it was reflected in their budgets because there wasn't a lot of fat to cut this year," council member Larry Moss said during the hearings. "Things have been cut so tight that if we reduce the operating balance and we find a mistake or something big comes up, we may be in trouble."
However, the thought of possibly having to reduce staffing did not sit well with the entire council either.
"It's a tough decision either way you look at it," council member Steve Withers said. "I hate that we even have to consider the staffing element, but we are here to do what is best for the county and putting ourselves in a spot where we may not have the funds available if we need them isn't a better situation."
The council discussed how instituting a Local Option Income Tax would not help them in 2010, but it needed to be done in order to help fund the 2011 budget.
In an attempt to come up with a consensus decision on what to do, Council President Mike McCullough called upon each council member individually to express their own thoughts on the situation.
"We are a seven-member board and the burden of making this extremely difficult decision should not fall on the shoulders of just one person," he said.
After a few hours of discussing every conceivable option they could think of and expressing their own ideas on what to do, the council did come up with a unanimous decision.
They needed more time.
Recognizing they have until October to finalize all budget decisions, the council agreed to take the next few weeks to delve further into each of the possibilities.
Council members planned to meet with each of the county office holders individually to discuss the current situation and gather additional information and insight on what could be done.
"Being one of the new guys on the council, parts of this are a little easier to make decisions because I have nothing else to gauge things on," council member Brian Wyndham said. "But at the same time, making one easy decision makes others, like this one, all the more difficult."
The council agreed to temporarily recess the budget hearings until an unspecified later date, allowing all information possible to be obtained before making a final decision.
Due to the Labor Day holiday, the next regular meeting of the Clay County Council will be at 6 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 8, in the Commissioners' Courtroom at the Clay County Courthouse.