By ED HOWELL
Daily Mountain Eagle
At least one full-time worker and three part-time employees have been laid off in the county in the wake of the General Fund cuts that have taken place in the …
By ED HOWELL
Daily Mountain Eagle
At least one full-time worker and three part-time employees have been laid off in the county in the wake of the General Fund cuts that have taken place in the county, most in the Probate Judge’s Office.
Hours were also reduced for another part-time worker.
While much attention has been given to the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, other offices have also dealt with the budget cuts caused from the county’s financial crisis. A number of county officials were surveyed by the Daily Mountain Eagle this week to assess the situation in the wake of 10 percent cuts in the General Fund, with 5 percent cut in the Sheriff’s Department, the county jail and the District Attorney’s Office.
The cuts in the General Fund were ordered to reduce the deficit in the Fiscal 2018 budget that took effect Sunday. As much as $1.8 million was projected as a deficit at one point this year as the county was approaching 2018, when the county will start paying $1.5 million in bond payments as principal will finally start to come due after a number of years.
County voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax in August that would have raised $7 million a year for debt, roads and other needs, leading to concerns about bankruptcy that had been warned about throughout the year. While the county was able to avoid bankruptcy, officials warned that cuts would involve cuts to services and jobs.
To get through the end of the Fiscal 2017 budget year, the commission put a temporary freeze on overtime and at one time threatened to cut all part-time workers.
In the end, the overtime freeze was lifted — albeit with rule changes from the Walker County Civil Service Board — and the commission left it up to department heads to find ways to make cuts to save part-time workers. A hiring freeze is still in effect.
Sheriff Jim Underwood said Wednesday he is still hurting from the hiring freeze, which leaves him in limbo with eight full-time positions unfilled. He is going month to month in deciding what to do about 10 part-time employees, as he continues to look for solutions.
Probate Judge Rick Allison said Monday said he lost two part-time workers and one full-time worker, all in tags. Their last day was Friday.
Allison said in the end, the commission said it was up to department heads to find cuts that could prevent having to lay off workers. However, he said out of his old budget of $976,000, only $153,000 of was not dealing with salaries and benefits.
“All I had was $153,000 that dealt that dealt with postage, office supplies, maybe small equipment,” he said. But I had to cut my budget 10 percent, so out of $153,000, they were wanting me to cut $98,000.”
Allison said mailouts, such as tag reminders, generate revenue, so cutting that would not bring savings. Of the 6,500 tag reminders mailed each month, about 1,200 to 1,500 customers uses the mail, paying a $2 mail fee that covers the cost, he said. Without that, the reduced workforce would have dealt with more people coming in person at the office, already known for its long lines.
“The only way I could cut my budget was to lose employees,” he said. “That’s what we had to do.”
He said even out of the $153,000, there was not much to cut out of that, because of a 4.5 percent cut already taken during the last commission term. The office had to look at details to make some cuts.
“We no longer make paper copies of tag receipts to keep in books here. It’s on the computer,” he said. Cutting 78,000 to 80,000 copies of paper saved the office $504 a year.
The office is collecting email addresses with the idea that next year the office might just email reminders to save on postage. “We’re working on that now,” Allison said. “That way you get the $2 postage and not have to mail out (the reminders).”
With the three layoffs, the office has shifted one employee back to tags, noting that employee was a “floater” to fill in where she was needed. However, he noted one employee is about to go on maternity leave.
Some advised him not to cut full-time employees in case revenue was raised, but Allison said he didn’t have a way to make cuts while waiting for a revenue solution.
Asked about office morale, he said, “We just have to issue one driver’s license or one tag at a time. We’re still here to serve. We just want the public to be patient with us. We don’t have as many people so naturally the wait will be a little longer. If they will work with us, we’ll get through this.”
Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie said Monday he didn’t have to lay any employees off, as about 70 percent of reappraisal and mapping items are being paid for by the state. “If it hadn’t been for that, I certainly would have had to lose some,” he said. “I only have five people who are employed by the General Fund. That was what was really helpful to me. I sustained those in my current budget.”
Assessors and collectors are covered under his local budget, he said. The reappraisal budget was approved by the commission on Sept. 18 in advance of the overall county budgets, without much discussion.
While he made a 10 percent cut to his budget, “I guess I am the only official that I know of who has ever operated every year for over two decades under budget. I conserve. I save it. I rolled back quite a bit this year and it really helped me,” he said.
Having said that, Guthrie said he cut 4.5 percent several years ago. After now cutting 10 percent, he is on “the bare minimum now” of what he can operate on. “I don’t know if I will ever be able to come under budget again,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”
He said that the office can’t afford to buy much.
“If we have an emergency fund for something like a big printer that goes out, we’re just up the creek, sort of speak,” he said. “We have some printers in here that are like $20,000 that are used for special things, and one of our scanners is like $15,000. So if those go out, I don’t have the money to cover them.”
Guthrie, who had lobbied to keep his four seasonal workers in a commission meeting, noted he kept the seasonal help. “I’m giving all the services I normally give,” he said, noting with the seasonal staffing he will be able to write checks for the county and municipalities in a timely manner.
The seasonal help is kept for three months and is usually dismissed by the second week in January, he said, noting “tubs and tubs of mail come in around the first two or three days of January,” which requires a while to deposit checks afterward, leading then to the delinquent notices.
“I’ll even try this year to let them go a little earlier if I can, just because of the contraints on my budget,” he said.
Regina Myers, the coordinator of the Walker County Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday she laid off her part-time clerk due to cuts, which amounted to possibly a little more than 10 percent.
“I’ll just have to take on more of the day-to-day activities,” she said. referring to planning, meetings and paperwork. “We have the emergency plans that we write and work on. We have updates for each one at certain times of the year. I will be bringing on a couple of volunteers to help me when I get overwhelmed, during times of bad weather or if I have a large hazmat.” The volunteers are certified volunteer firefighters with knowledge and training in terms of emergency medical and hazmat situations.
Services in her department will continue as normal, including her response to emergency situations. Also, serious emergency situations will also still involve activation of the emergency operations center, where representatives from various agencies would be in place next to Myers’ office to help with response.
“We will still be able to respond,” she said.
She still said the situation has not been easy for department heads to deal with, but that they have to look at the numbers and possible situations that still need to be funded. “You have to do what you think is best for the greater good,” she said. “I just hate the situation, but it is what it is.”
County Administrator Cheryl Ganey said Tuesday her department had to cut 10 percent, with one part-time employee working reduced hours.
Asked how that affects services, Ganey noted, “The phone rings off the hook, so it puts us answering the phones. Usually, it is for another department and we have to look up the other phone number and tell them to look up the other department. Then people are constantly walking in the door. A lot of it is for the court systems, and we’re having to direct them. We’re just not going to have anybody up there. Right now, the lady works three or four hours a day now, and she’s not here. She’s out sick. It’s just two of us trying to catch all the phones and people at the door.”
She noted the county engineer is not in the General Fund and did not have to cut 10 percent. Short could not be reached for comment.
Jeff Lockhart, manager of the Walker County Human and Adoption Center, said he is the only full-time employee at the center, and has two part-time workers. The staff was not affected by cuts, although he said his budget may have been changed. “We do run seven days a week,” he said, noting it would have been difficult if he had actually been faced with losing part-time workers.
Solid Waste Department head Joey Wright said his department did not suffer cuts. He said the department brought in more revenue than budgeted to take care of any higher costs, and noted it is separated out from the General Fund.
District Attorney Bill Adair said Thursday his office, which gets multiple sources of funding, is still evaluating the situation. He said his office is already “down a couple of prosecutors,” but the office would do the best it can to serve the people of the county.
Circuit Clerk Susie Odom said she is on the state budget instead of the county budget, although she has suffered with cuts in state funding over the years.