County Commission unhappily passes budget

Reading Time: 3 minutes

No across-the-board raises for county employees this year

By Blenda Copeland

No across-the-board county employee raises for the first time in 15 years. That was the final decision Sept. 12 as the Russell County Commission unhappily, but unanimously, voted to approve the county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018-’19 budget.

The approved budget’s total is pegged at about $31.3 million. As for budgeted expenditures, County Administrator LeAnn Horne explained the county must have a balanced budget: “It is my goal managing all the county departments’ expenditures, revenues and expenses for all county funds (which are 32 funds) to be under their budgeted revenue amount,” Horne said via email Monday.  “Expenses should be less or equal to the budgeted revenue amount.”

Commissioner Gentry Lee made the final motion to approve the budget as Horne had presented it — without the raises — and with certain appropriations changes. Commissioner Chance Corbett seconded the motion.

In his final motion, Lee clarified that the motion covered: deleting appropriations for six agencies whose representatives did not appear before the commission; moving a request from the Russell County Historical Commission to the tourism funds section; putting the East Alabama Chamber request under the appropriations section; and adding Columbus-based Stewart Community Home that offers transitional housing to homeless people who are often also chronically mentally ill or physically or intellectually disabled who also come from the East Alabama area.

Before the vote, commissioners discussed a wide variety of concerns.

Commissioner Cattie Epps tried to convince commissioners to cut their own individual projects requests so there might be money in the budget to offer two or three percent raises across-the-board to county employees. She reviewed out loud the amounts of allocations each commissioner requested for specific projects in his or her district, with challenges from Corbett on the actual amounts requested and how the math really adds up.

Commissioners Lee and Corbett’s views were different than Epps’ suggestion. Lee opined the problem rests in the long term: the commission might find funds for one year to offer across-the-board raises, but how will it sustain the cost of those raises in the following years, he asked. These projects do a lot of good around the county, and it’s a one-time expenditure, he said, referring to the commissioner’s project wish lists.

He said yes, the commission could cut commissioner’s projects out of the budget, but regardless, in his budgeting experience, it takes a projected 5 percent revenue increase to cover the cost of giving across-the-board raises. He also referenced the past: “We tried to get a county-wide sales tax,” but it didn’t work out, he said. He also pointed out that for the past 10 years, the county’s code enforcement office, through employee Bill Friend, has helped the county afford raises because of the amount of gross receipts revenues that were collected. “It has saved our rear ends,” Lee said, but now, that funding source has dried up and the county is now at a “plateau.”

Corbett said he’s “torn up” that employees might not get the across-the-board raises, but he personally understands what it’s like to not get raises in some years. He also opined that not giving a raise this year might enable the commission to give a larger raise next time.

Also during discussion, Commission Chairwoman Peggy Martin suggested the commission pledge $50,000 over a 10-year period to the Phenix City Housing Authority. Commissioner Lee asked whether that was allowable by the auditors. Meanwhile, County Administrator LeAnn Horne interjected a word of caution about how reserves have been depleted, and how the math was adding up, once you start subtracting proposed figures from an additional new revenue source. She said while she agrees with all commissioners about agencies’ good work in the community, “we’ve got to take care of our own first.