New hires frozen as county looks at dealing with budget hole
By WILLIAM SNOWDEN
The county audit committee met last week to discuss the county’s financial status facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall because of the mistaken overvaluation of a lot in Lake Ellen for $307 million.
The error by the property appraiser’s office was caught by Tax Collector Lisa Craze just as she was about to mail out tax bills – too late to correct the budegts for county government and school board.
(The Wakulla County School Board faced a hole in its budget of some $1.7 million. Superintendent of Schools Bobby Pearce said this week that the State of Florida had done recalculations and would cover most of the shortfall. The district would still face a $600,000 hole from its tax levy for capital outlay. He said the district would be able to deal with that shortfall by other means.)
Anticipating a larger budget this year, county commissioners had approved nine new positions at the sheriff’s office – most of them road deputies – as well as additional firefighters. Those positions were immediately frozen by commissioners when they realized they faced a major hole in their budget.
But Sheriff Jared Miller has made clear he still needs some of the positions immediately to meet requirements of state laws.
At the meeting of the audit committee on Wednesday, Clerk of Courts Greg James and County Administrator David Edwards noted that holding off on hiring new deputies would save $900,000 this year – and the same amount for holding off hiring new firefighters.
“That leaves about a $600,000 deficit,” the clerk noted.
Property Appraiser Ed Brimner reported that property values in the county, as of Jan. 16, were up to $2.187 billion, over last year’s $2.046 billion – an increase of some $142 million.
What that would translate into for tax revenues next year was not immediately calculated at the meeting.
It was noted that the problem of the budget hole would not be solved until the county’s millage or value increase equalled $2.4 million.
Brandy King, the county financial officer, noted that the original budget estimate was $17.64 million. At the Feb. 20 meeting, county commissioners will vote for a budget amendment with projected actual revenues of $15.5 million.
On the expense side, the freeze on hiring for new positions – in addition to deputies and firefighters – extends to any new positions within county government, such as new park employees. (It still allows for hiring to replace staff.)
The county’s $30 million loan to cover current sewer projects was also discussed. The county took out the loan to cover projects that are being paid for by state grant – but the state pays reimbursements, so the county has to front the costs.
Clerk Greg James reported that the county has paid back $9 million of the $30 million.
He also noted that the county has invested the loan and is receiving some income off the money but not quite enough to cover the interest on the loan.
“We’re borrowing the money almost for nothing, (but) not quite,” James said.
Edwards expressed concern about having the cash flow to keep the various septic-to-sewer and wastewater treatment plant expansion projects going.
James noted that the county could seek a loan against what it has paid back – in other words, it could get another $9 million against the repayment of the loan.
The audit committee is chaired by Commission Chair Quincee Messersmith and consists of constitutional officers. Brimner was at the meeting, as was Supervisor of Elections Joe Morgan. Tax Collector Lisa Craze was out of town. Sheriff Jared Miller sent a representative.
The committee plans to meet again in March.