'We only need what we need': Clay supes begin budget review

Circuit Court Clerk Bob Harrell, right, makes a point to, from left, Supervisors Shelton Deanes, Luke Lummus and Joe Chandler.
Staff Writer

With the revenue picture better than it's been in "several years," Clay County supervisors have begun pouring over budgets to put together spending plan for the 2019 budget year that starts Oct. 1.

According to preliminary revenue estimates, the county could see revenue estimates increase as much as $550,000 from property taxes because of natural growth in the county's property values. But Chancery Court Clerk Amy Berry, who also acts as the county's budget manager, those numbers don't include how debt payments or the Justice Center now under construction.

"Those are all things we've still got to look at to see how those numbers fit in. But we do have some options. They'll do the right thing. We only need what we need," Berry said of the supervisors.

The county's biggest project is the $3 million renovation of the 20,000-square-foot former Jitney Jungle/Pass It On building into three courtrooms, meeting space and offices or Circuit and Justice courts.That's supposed to be finished next spring.

The building still has to be furnished, but supervisors have been putting aside some money towards that goal. Paying for renovations to the existing court and jail buildings also must be considered.

The timing also is in flux. For instance, Circuit Court Clerk Bob Harrell told supervisors Tuesday his office likely will need new computers but would wait until the county got into the new building and possibly until after next year's elections.

"We'll start looking at those things. We've got to get one thing done at a time," Berry said.
Unless supervisors change course and take on some other major capital project, the only other big expenses would be pay raises for the county's approximately 125 full- and part-time workers. Human Resources Director Treva Hodge is figuring those numbers for supervisors to review later in budget talks.

For now, supervisors are reviewing the costs of everything from Meals on Wheels and appointed attorneys to mail and elections.

Budget hearings started Tuesday and one of the biggest discussions centered around expenses for elections, from repairing machines to extra training costs for poll workers.

Supervisors, justice court judges and all county-wide offices from sheriff and coroner to chancery and circuit clerks are on next year's ballot as are races for top state offices.

The primaries for those those races will be next August and likely will involve runoffs.

In addition, general elections for Congress and chancery court are this November. That also could involve a runoff.

"You might as well put that number in at $30,000, Harrell said referring to one of the election categories.

"Next year is the big one so the costs are going to be up," he continued, noting the Legislature raised the per-diem pay for poll workers and required additional training for them.

One bright spot is the county has more than $78,000 in a special fund to maintain and replace the county's 59 electronic voting machines.

"We should be in pretty good shape there thankfully," Harrell said.

The increase in legal fees in both circuit and chancery courts spawned discussions about unforeseen costs and unfunded mandates. In the end, supervisors acknowledged they could do little about some of them.

For instance, legal expenses for appointed attorneys and witnesses are almost $30,000 over budget in circuit court. Those fees cover everything from special attorneys appointed when public defenders have conflicts, expenses for witnesses called in for trials, and other costs.

Likewise, chancery court had a significant jump in legal expenses for an attorney appointed to protect a parent's rights in a child custody case. Chancery Clerk Amy Berry told supervisors its something she's never seen in court before.

"All these things we have to do, I see them as an unfunded mandate. It seems like the state should set up funds to help counties cover these kinds of things," Supervisor Shelton Deanes said.

Berry suggested asking legislators to add a small amount to court filing fees with the new revenue set aside for indigent support services.

"There are ways we can be proactive in helping our county," she said.

"It's probably only going to get worse," she added, suggesting supervisors increase some budget categories to cover higher costs.

Another of those was medical expenses for mental health cases, a figure that already is well above budget with two months remaining in the current fiscal year. Berry said a new crisis stabilization center being planned by Community Counseling Services could reduce some county expenses but even with the service, the county's costs are increasing.

"I hope the kind of cases we've had this year don't happen again, but I can't say," Berry said, referring to the dramatic rise in the number of mental health commitments.

Even postage costs are nibbling away at finances, Supervisor Luke Lummus noted, questioning big jumps in mail costs in administrative budgets for mailing certified letters for taxes, easements and other paperwork.

"It is what it is," he finally acknowledged.

The board is hesitant to increase funding for several charities and non-profits, ranging from the American Red Cross to the Meals on Wheels program operated by the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District.

Red Cross asked for $9,000, up from the $3,500 the county normally provides.

After getting a $3,500 increase last year to $31,000, Meals on Wheels wanted another increase to $37,409 this year.

Supervisors said they wanted a list of people in their districts who were receiving the weekly services.

"If they qualify, they qualify, we can't do anything about that, but I would like to at least see," Lummus said.

Supervisors must approve a budget by mid-September.