|Budget cuts and surviving in difficult economic times-Nov. 2013 Wakulla Times|
BUDGET CUTS AND SURVIVING IN DIFFICULT ECONOMIC TIMES
BY CHARLIE CREEL
After a summer filled with numbers crunching, meetings with elected officials and two public hearings, the 2013-2014 Wakulla County budget was adopted by the county commission in late September. The budget year began on Oct. 1 and will continue until Sept. 30, 2014.
Looking back on my first budget experience it was both a challenge and an achievement for my WCSO staff.
After the November 2012 election, I was given two months to work with former Sheriff Donnie Crum on my transition planning. Time passed quickly and I was sworn into the sheriff’s office during the first week of January.
The next milestone was in May as I submitted my budget proposal to the county. My finance staff created the 2013-2014 budget year plan based on our recommendations. There was very little increase in the budget proposal from what was approved by the Wakulla County Commission last fall. But ultimately, the new budget was approved with no increases and several cuts.
Also eliminated was a reserve fund established to meet a grant obligation in the future. These cuts were necessary in order to absorb increases in the Florida Retirement contributions, health insurance premium increases and to reduce our reliance on the jail bed revenue program.
I recommended and the commissioners approved a decline in the amount budgeted for the jail bed revenue. The county is dependent on the jail bed revenue generated by housing detainees for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is volatile revenue and due to Federal budget issues, this revenue has fallen short of budgeted amounts in the current year. The 2013-2014 budget includes a reduction of our reliance on this program by $200,000. Since its inception 22 years ago, the jail bed revenue program has supported the county general fund by more than $34 million dollars.
We have addressed our concerns with U.S. Congressman Steve Southerland about the unpredictable nature of the ICE funding. Rep. Southerland visited our office earlier this year and listened to our concerns and he even asked us if we would be willing to come to Washington, D.C. to discuss our concerns with Homeland Security officials. We will certainly be willing to meet with ICE in our nation’s capital.
During the budget planning cycle during the summer, I invited each commissioner separately over to my office to view a four hour PowerPoint presentation by WCSO staff outlining each division’s responsibility and budget needs. This gave each commissioner one-on-one time with WCSO staff to answer any questions they may have and to gain more knowledge of our day-to-day operations. We are a large agency, with 151 employees performing a vast range of public safety functions, detention services, countywide communications tasks and community service programs. We had 100 percent participation from the board and want to thank all five commissioners for committing their time to learning more about our agency. We have a very dedicated and responsible commission and want to thank them for their support during this budget process. They really understand what we need in order to maintain the level of service that has allowed us all to live in a safe, low crime rate environment.
Unfortunately, it was once again a year of property tax decline which has made it difficult on our employees. Our employees have not been granted salary raises since the 2008-2009 budget year. As a result, we have many law enforcement officers leaving the agency in order to pursue opportunities to better themselves financially.
LET’S LOOK A LITTLE CLOSER AT OUR LOCAL BUDGET NUMBER
Overall, the county was facing a decline in revenues of a little more than $100,000 but due to the allocation of revenues, county staff was proposing a $434,000 decline to the WCSO Fine and Forfeiture Fund. In order to meet this request, the WCSO was asked to cut more than $650,000, the $434,000 requested plus another $226,000 to absorb increases required in State Retirement rates and employee health insurance.
The WCSO budget is broken into five pieces to cover Law Enforcement; Corrections; Courts; E-911; and Emergency Management.
During the budget hearing process, commissioners voted 4-1 to restore $150,000 back to the law enforcement budget. By restoring this amount we are still faced with an overall reduction of $376,000 but at least we are moving the jail bed issue in the right direction. I am proud to say we aren’t going backwards in that category, but in return we had to give up a reserve fund we established for meeting a grant obligation in a future budget. We have created a very successful juvenile program with this grant funding and will have to hope for better economic days in order to keep this program alive.
In the end we are very thankful for the support of the county commission. The board members understand what we need in order to maintain the level of service that has allowed us all to enjoy a quality of life without high crime.
When you don’t offer your employees any hope for a financial pay raise the result is the loss of employees to other opportunities. We continue to experience turnover of staff because we cannot compete against other nearby financial opportunities.
Our employees have actually been going backwards recently and that started when the governor and legislature supported a bill that forced our employees to pay three percent of their own retirement. For employees who have not received any pay raises, having more taken out of their pay checks for retirement results in less take home money each pay day.
The state pay raise proposal that passed the Florida Legislature included $1,400 for employees who make less than $40,000 and $1,000 increase for state employees who make more than $40,000. In addition, school districts were given money for pay raises, but the county employees lag far behind. I certainly hope we can address this issue in the very near future.
Over the past two years a number of veteran law enforcement staff members have retired or moved on to other jobs which has resulted in less experience in the agency. But the young men and women we have do an outstanding job. Over the past two years the sheriff’s office has cut 12 positions.
Also negotiated was a new contract for inmate commissary services. The WCSO Commissary Committee reviewed proposals from several vendors in an effort to get the best commission return possible when inmates order commissary goods while they are incarcerated in our facility. We are also modernizing our commissary operation by having ordering kiosks inside the jail pods to allow inmates to make their commissary orders directly to the vendor rather than having WCSO staff manually fill out orders for inmates each week.
We feel the new system will be easier on our staff and provide the best possible service for the inmates whether they are local inmates or detainees from the federal government. A higher sales commission back to the sheriff’s office will also help the Inmate Welfare Fund which provides inmates with other services such as the purchase of Bibles, a weekly GED education tutor, GED testing, postage stamps, envelopes and writing paper, a pencil, and has also assisted in capital outlay purchases of hot water tanks for the jail and a dishwasher for the kitchen.
We are facing an increased cost in acquiring ammunition and we are changing the outdated Tasers that our law enforcement staff carries. We have found a way to replace the Tasers as cost effectively as possible.
There is $74,047 in the former corrections impact fee fund which will pay for some security improvements at the jail. The $295,000 one cent sales tax for public safety will pay for the purchase of nine law enforcement vehicles. The one cent sales tax for facilities will raise $200,000 that will be put toward the construction of the planned law enforcement annex. In the building repairs account is another $25,000 which will go toward replacement of one of 32 air conditioning units, this one is located in the jail.
Four positions cuts took effect on Oct. 1 and I am committed to finding every opportunity to cut in the years ahead. We have already looked into cost saving opportunities like consolidating positions, energy efficient lighting, preventative building and in-house maintenance in a short period of time.
Our employees have been asked to turn off appliances and lights when they are not in use and tolerate warmer temperatures in the office during the summer and cooler temperatures during the winter. We have done our very best to reduce costs wherever and whenever possible in an effort to keep the budget from increasing.
I am very proud of the work done by my staff in cutting back. Everyone has embraced the conservation message that we have given them and they all understand the importance of keeping expenses low as we continue to navigate through difficult economic times in Wakulla County and in Florida.
We know we will make it through because we have a great staff that takes great pride in providing the best law enforcement and detention services for the lowest cost possible. I want to thank my finance staff for doing such a great job during the budget process and the rest of the staff for doing their part to make it all work for the agency and for the citizens of Wakulla County.
Have a very safe and Happy Thanksgiving and 2013 holiday season!