By JEROD CLAPP
NEW ALBANY —
Faced with a room full of jeering county employees afraid of losing their jobs, the Floyd County Council came up with a tentative plan Thursday night for the county’s 2014 budget to stave off staff cuts.
Council president John Schellenberger said at the meeting that next week they’ll look at passing a $12.3 million general fund budget to be sent to the Department of Local Government Finance — $3.6 million more than the estimated funds they’ll actually receive — and give themselves about four months to figure out a way to make up the difference.
But before that idea came to the table, county employees voiced their frustration with decisions they thought led to hemorrhaging county funds.
TAKING A STAND
Cheryl Mills, second deputy assessor, said among those expenditures was the decision to buy the Pineview Government Center from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. for $1.5 million. It’s where Thursday’s meeting was held.
She said that along with other costs, the brunt of the bill shouldn’t be paid by employees.
“You all have bitten off more than you chew, but the bottom line is this,” Mills said. “It’s not our responsibility to bail you out as the employees of the county.”
Jim Wathen, At-large councilman, said the county hired 50 employees between 2010 and 2012, which also added to rising expenses. But Elizabeth Brewer, a nurse at the Floyd County jail, said wherever they were hired, they didn’t go to work in the overcrowded corrections facility.
She said if the council went through with 30 percent budget cuts across every department — as suggested by Vice-President Dana Fendley — it could make working in the jail dangerous.
She said she works the jail with one other nurse as cell blocks are staffed with two corrections officers, responsible for about 60 inmates. She said she’s afraid employee cuts could affect the safety of her and her colleagues.
“If you cut officers, it might be me that doesn’t go home that day,” Brewer said. “It might be my fellow nurse that doesn’t go home that day. We didn’t overspend, we didn’t buy the buildings, we didn’t make the decisions that you guys as a council made, but we’ll pay for those mistakes.”
Trish Byrd, county assessor, said morale in county offices has been on the decline for a long time. She said her employees take on a lot of extra work, haven’t seen a raise in years, took a big hit with increased insurance premiums, and seeing the council buy a new building “leaves a bad taste in their mouths.”
Wathen said he understands the concerns voiced by the employees and wants to do everything he can to preserve their jobs.
“We know every single person out there is an asset to Floyd County,” Wathen said. “We certainly are between a rock and a hard place. We know the complaints are out there because honestly, if I was in your shoes, I’d be complaining, too. You all have been treated very bad for the last 11 years as employees.”
A number of other big expenses have contributed to the county’s budget woes — $4.5 million has been spent on the three murder trials of David Camm, between hiring special prosecutors, judges and other expenditures. The upcoming trial of accused serial killer William Clyde Gibson III has already cost about $300,000.
The elimination of the inheritance tax in the state takes about $125,000 away from county revenue and property tax caps written into the state constitution have choked back income.
Brad Striegel, At-large councilman, said the council should consider approaching the Horseshoe Foundation to see if any of their expenditures qualify for grants or other money from the entity.
Scott Clark, auditor, said he spoke with Jerry Finn, executive director for the foundation, along with some of its board members. He said he left with the impression that they could not give money to taxpayer-funded entities such as the council.
Though Striegel said Finn may have said that, he’d like to go to the board anyway to see if they’re willing to help.
But Lois Endris, county recorder, gave the council a suggestion they may follow through with at its meeting Thursday — borrow money and sell some county assets after submitting the budget to the DLGF and make up some of the shortfall.
Clark also said it’s possible to raise the county adjusted income tax by .5 percentage points. After the meeting, he said someone with an income of $25,000 would pay an extra $125 a year in taxes.
He said while that would give property owners a .25 percent property tax credit, the county would still realize $2 million in revenue. He said income taxes have not been raised in the county since 2003.
But two council members said they opposed any kind of a tax increase — Wathen and Tom Pickett, 1st District councilman. He said he didn’t think the public nor county employees should pay for any mistakes the council made, which they partially blamed on their former auditor, Darin Coddington, who resigned earlier this year.
“I’m not for layoffs or tax increases,” Pickett said. “I don’t know what the department will decide on in taking any kind of percentage cuts [to their budgets]. We didn’t see this [budget shortfall] coming. We approved things we probably shouldn’t have, but we didn’t know that at the time.”
During the meeting, a member of the crowd said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes if it meant they could keep the county employees in their jobs.
Schellenberger said at next week’s meeting the council will consider passing the budget at $12.3 million. The state isn’t expected to announce the approved budget until February or March, but he said that may give them time to sell off some of their properties and look for money elsewhere.