County officials confront looming budget crunch

While Jefferson County Judge Dutch King gave the pep talk, County Treasurer Elizabeth Rinchuso laid out the cold hard facts Monday, saying that county revenue is down while spending is up, and cuts are going to have to be made.

“State law says we can only appropriate 90 percent of our anticipated revenue and so far this year, we’ve spent $192,000 more than what we’re supposed to,” Rinchuso said.

Speaking to county elected officials and department heads at a luncheon meeting, Rinchuso said for the first two months of this year, overall revenue is up $300,000 while county expenditures are up $800,000.

“We’ve spent so much money we don’t have beginning balances anymore,” she said. “There’s no cushion anymore.”

Rinchuso said the county began 2012 with a balance of $10.8 million, while the beginning balance for 2013 was $7.7 million.

“So far this year, we’ve spent $450,000 more than we did last year, and we’ve got to do something,” Rinchuso said. “Since January, I’ve had to cash in five CDs of $300,00 each to keep the cash flow going. We got a sales tax check today for $347,000 and we’ve got to do payroll for the rest of the week and that’s $550,000. That will leave us $716,000 not including other bills.’

King, who took office Jan. 1, said “I’ve been on the job for 13 weeks and I don’t know everything yet but I’m going to put in the hours to learn.

“We’ve got financial issues and if we put our heads together we can make it work,” King said. “We owe it to the people who elected us.”

King said that in previous years, “this county had a whole lot of money for a long period of time and a whole bunch of money can hide a lot of sins.

“The problem actually started decades ago,” King said. “The population started decreasing, the tax base went down while expenses continued to go up and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two don’t meet.”

One of the problems King hopes to find an answer for is to pay insurance costs for county employees next year. Employees are currently paying those costs, to the tune of $149,000 this year.

“Insurance costs are out of control,” King said. “We need to cut unnecessary spending and it might be that instead of buying new vehicles every two years, we maybe look at every four years.”

King and Rinchuso agreed that part of the problem has resulted from state sales tax rebates to companies doing business in Jefferson County, with Rinchuso saying that the rebates cost the county $2.5 million last year.

Rinchuso said a bill currently pending in the Arkansas Legislature would identify the companies who receive sales tax rebates. Currently, the identity of those companies is kept secret.

“The state Chamber of Commerce was behind that legislation and no legislators want to take on the state chamber,” King said.

Regarding the tax rebates, Rinchuso said Phillips County had a tax rebate of more than $500,000 one month last year and didn’t have the tax money to pay that rebate.

“They had to borrow the money from the state to pay the rebate until they got their next tax check,” Rinchuso said.

Asked by Justice of the Peace Delton Wright if the same thing could happen in Jefferson County, Rinchuso said “yes.”

She said at some point, she would like to be able to give employees a raise.

“Those people have stood by us for six years,” Rinchuso said.

Sheriff Gerald Robinson said “We’ve got to take care of home first. We’ve put pressure on them to be frugal and when they see money used to buy property or other things they get disheartened.”

Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin II suggested the possibility of giving county employees a bonus at the end of the year if the money can be found, possibly 1 percent, but King said he would prefer an across-the-board bonus instead, giving everyone the same dollar amount.

At a previous meeting of the Quorum Court, Franklin also suggested asking every elected official and department head to submit a proposed 2014 budget by the first of April so that the justices of the peace would have time to start working on figures for next year.

“I’m still using the same budget as (the late) Helen Bradley,” said County Clerk Patricia Royal Johnson.

In previous years, county agencies and departments were told to take the same budget as the previous year but King said “that won’t happen again.”

“We need a realistic budget,” Justice of the Peace Ted Harden said. “We need to know what it takes to operate your office. We may not approve it all but we’re trying to eliminate supplemental appropriations.”