Top Stories No. 1: County budget struggles

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County … No. 3 – Nativity Scene Controversy … No. 2 – Redistricting Scrambles Election.)

It might not surprise anyone that our top story of 2012 involves money.

Henderson County Commissioners’ Court struggled through the summer with its budget for the coming year before keeping the current tax rate: .472658 per $100 valuation.

“We did come up with a budget that did not increase taxes. I think that is very important in this day and time, with all the people who are hurting trying to make ends meet,” County Judge Richard Sanders said at the time.

The decision was popular, but not easy.

Factors like slower than normal tax collections, declining revenue from the jail, and increases in health insurance and retirement created a deficit for the county. Even something as universally praised as the senior citizen tax freeze has had an impact. In 2013, the county will lose an additional $180,000 in revenue because of new senior citizens, said Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney.

In order to balance the budget, the county eliminated the equivalent of 14 personnel slots, some full time and some part time. Counted in human terms, eight people who were on the county payroll in 2012 are not there today.

“Everyone on this Commissioners’ Court took it very seriously,” Sanders said. “We tried to cut everywhere else you could possibly cut before we considered any personnel cuts, whether it be part time or full time. I believe we did that to the fullest extent that we could.”

Commissioners also warned that keeping the status quo with money did not equal the status quo on services.

In August, McKinney and Pct. 4 Commissioner Ken Geeslin issued a report detailing the relationship between income and cost within the county budget. The McKinney-Geeslin Report covered five years and included topics such as revenue, tax collections and tax rates, personnel costs by department, and the cost of road materials.

The two commissioners found what they expected: The shrinking “purchase power” of the Road and Bridge fund is cutting into their ability to repair roads and provide services to their constituents.

As Geeslin says only half-jokingly, “Unless we get some relief for Road and Bridge we’re going to have to have a part time clerk just to keep up with the call volume of the folks complaining about the lack of services. The way Road and Bridge has been able to stay afloat is we take money out of road material and we plug it in everywhere else, so therefore the amount of work (is down).”

The report covers five years, from 2007 to the present, McKinney said, “because that takes into account the (economic) crash and everything, and gives you a good balance.”

“Well, in that amount of time, gasoline has gone up 125 percent,” he said.

Diesel fuel, which is mainly what is used at the precinct barns, has gone up 68 percent since 2007. The price of material for the routine way the county maintains roads, which is also the least expensive (seal coat and pea gravel), has more than doubled over the past five years. Health insurance and retirement has gone up 26 percent and 23 percent respectively for workers at the precinct barns.

The McKinney-Geeslin report says income for Road and Bridge during that same time has gone up about 9 percent.

“We only have a couple of shots of getting the truth out there,” Geeslin said. “We live in a world of propaganda that is repeated and the truth seldom is repeated. I want the people of Henderson County to understand that we can pass a budget this year with no tax increases, but there will be consequences and I don’t want them to think the Road and Bridge operations are just becoming lazy and just don’t want to do anything. I want them to understand that if we can’t respond and the fix the roads the way they are accustomed to seeing them fixed, it isn’t because our desire isn’t there. It is because the funds aren’t there.”

Commissioners have already started meeting to discuss next year’s budget, which figures to be just as difficult.