Taxes spared county from deficit

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By Robin Bass

While neighboring counties are reporting budget shortfalls, proposing salary freezes and even 4-day work weeks, Spencer may be one of the few county governments to present a budget that balances.

Spencer County Fiscal Court received their first glimpse of a $4.57 million proposed budget presented by Judge Executive David Jenkins earlier this month. The overall operating figure reveals a leveling-off, with a bottom line that is $2,000 less than the current year. It’s in the internal figures, however, where some juggling occurs.

“A lot of it has to do with the construction industry,” said Jenkins, explaining some of the county’s loss in revenue.

As the housing construction market cooled over the past several years, the amount the county collected from that industry has also taken a hit. As of March 2009, fees obtained from deed transfers, planning and zoning, and inspections are down collectively $130,000, or 6 percent less than the current budget. As a result, projected figures in the 2009-10 budget are more conservative.

Treasurer Doug Williams said that in addition to the housing industry, the county also expects revenue losses from truck license fees and state-funded county road aid. Williams has projected that the county will receive about $73,000 less, or a 9 percent reduction in funds that are used to pave roads, buy equipment and pay the salaries of the county’s road crew.

As some areas of the budget reveal drops in revenue, other sectors are seeing jumps in expenses, such as insurance and retirement costs. Expenditures in hazardous-duty retirement for EMS and the Sheriff’s Department will rise from 29.5 percent to 32.9 percent –costing the county roughly $26,000 more during the next fiscal year.

Jenkins said that any shortages in the 2009-10 budget are expected be covered by insurance premium and occupational taxes. Each tax is projected to bring in $420,000 to the general fund.

The county also expects to generate $760,000 in real property taxes, up from the projected $720,000 last year. The 2009-10 estimate was based on the county collecting $778,000 in real property taxes through March 2009. Assessments remained unchanged during 2008, but taxes rose from $89.83 per every $10,000 in real property to $92.13.

Jenkins told magistrates that when all the sources of revenue are combined, however, the county’s general fund will only increase by $68,535.

“This is a budget with really no fluff,” said Jenkins. “It’s straight forward, but you’ve got to remember that a budget is just a guide. It can change.”

Some changes could even occur today at a meeting of fiscal court. Several magistrates have expressed plans to dive deeper into individual department requests before the matter is given their final approval.

“Taxes have helped”

Neighboring Shelby County reported last week that their budget must be trimmed by $600,000 if it is to be balanced. Shelby County Judge Executive Rob Rothenburger has proposed freezing county employee raises to make up the 3.6 percent cut in Shelby’s $17 million budget.

In Bullitt County, Judge Executive Melanie Roberts proposed cutting work weeks and salaries of the county’s three dozen employees by 20 percent. Roberts is looking at making up a $2.7 million deficit in the upcoming 2009-10 Bullitt County budget.

Jenkins attributed occupational and insurance premium taxes imposed in 2008 as saving local government from a similar fate.

“Other places already had one or both of these taxes put on,” said Jenkins, and now they have no alternative other than cutting expenses.

Jenkins said that over the years, fiscal court has managed to make the relatively small amount of money from taxes and state grants go a long way – such as developing two county parks. Now that the flow of money from Frankfort has dried up, fiscal court has been forced to be more creative. Recently, when state funds used to dispose of the county’s dead livestock was cut, court enlisted the help of Spencer County Farm Bureau and the Soil Conservation District to assist in covering the costs.

In 2008, the court was forced to get creative again when the county was hit with a flood. This time, they took out a $500,000 low-interest loan to pay for road and bridge repairs. Jenkins said the county reported $850,000 in damages to FEMA and are expecting to receive 87 percent reimbursement – 13 percent will be the responsibility of the county. The only problem is that FEMA has provided no time line on when the county should expect the reimbursement.

“It really hurts the budget because it means we can’t do things we normally do,” said Jenkins, like regular road maintenance.

The only other large debt is another $500,000 loan secured in September 2007. Jenkins said that loan was used to offset deficit in the 2007-08 budget. Without the loan, he said, the county would have been forced to cut services such as parks and the recycling center. The remaining $600,000 in debt is toward the purchase of county vehicles and equipment.