Commission OK's improving budget


Lacking a sense of urgency and financial threat thanks to an improving economy and belt-tightening measures, Walker County Commission approved a $11.1 million General Fund budget for Fiscal 2020, which takes effect on Tuesday. 

District 2 Jeff Burrough was not present, as commissioners said he was involved that morning with road paving work in his district. Instead of meeting on the third Monday of the month, commissioners arranged to have a work session on the budget last week and to approve the final budget Thursday. 

Even with future long-term situations down the road, such as needing new election equipment and the loss in time of Gorgas Plant tax revenue, commissioners could relax as the improved economy and cost savings eased the sense of impending doom seen over the past couple of years with the finances. There was no talk of bankruptcy or major budget cuts, although commissioners have indicated that more revenue is still needed for road work. 

Commissioners were even told that the projected revenue had been increased by $100,000 since the previous week's budget work session. 

Budgeted General Fund revenue for Fiscal 2019 was $9.92 million but it will actually stand at $10.9 million, County Administrator Robbie Dickerson said. Another $200,000 was transferred in to make the revenue $11,162,488 for the new budget, with expenditures set at $11,147,328.25. 

The balance of $15,259 will be decreased by $15,000 as discretionary appropriations of $5,000 each were approved for the Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging (M4A), the Walker County Extension System and the Walker County Community Action Agency. That will leave a balance in the General Fund of $259.75 - although Chairman Jerry Bishop said afterward the county still has reserves for emergencies. 

The commission essentially cut all discretionary funds for such agencies a couple of years ago when the county faced a major financial emergency, as a major principal payment on bond payments was about to start and a proposed sales tax failed at the polls.

Last year a lodging tax increase resulted in allocations to the county's two chambers of commerce and the Walker County Development Authority, the county's industrial board. Those allocations - $25,000 of the new lodging revenue to the WCDA, the county's industrial board, as well as $20,000 to the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County and $5,000 to the East Walker Chamber of Commerce -  will continue with the Fiscal 2020 budget. 

The new budget also has a provision that any revenue during the fiscal year involving the business license revenue over the budgeted amount will be divided between the four districts for repair and maintenance of roads. 

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who is known for actively working on the budgets, commended Dickerson for "a fantastic job" on the budget, noting its complexity. "There are a lot of different revenue streams and a lot of restricted funds," he said, noting some spending restrictions are placed on by the state. "It's not like you get one number and you can budget off that one number." 

He went on to say, "I can't stress how thankful I am that we have an administrator who has that level of understanding and doing a great job." Dickerson joked it "has been a learning experience," but then said that everyone in county offices have been helpful and understanding since she took over in January 2018. She said it has been helpful for Bishop to be at the office on a daily basis. 

Davis said, "Overall, the financial condition of the county is improving, but we still have a long way to go. We still have infrastructure needs. There is a lot of work left to be done." 

Bishop said the situation is "different" than when he arrived. He quoted Eleanor Roosevelt as saying, "You can't do anything about the future because you don't know what it will bring. You can't do anything about the past because you can't go back. But you can start something today." 

He said the current commission has been working on the present since he arrived, and is continuing that work.

"It's a good workable budget, and we hope the economy stays good, and will even be better next year," he said. "The citizens, I think they will be contented. I don't think they will be happy - most people aren't. There is always something else to do. But we will continue to do our jobs. All I am here is to help. Robbie has done most of the work. I assist." 

The financial picture for the commission has improved over the past two years. At one point in 2017, as much as $1.8 million was projected as a deficit for Fiscal 2018, as the county was to start paying $1.5 million in bond payments in calendar year 2018 and as principal was to finally start to come due after being put off a number of years. 

A freeze on new, full-time and part-time employees was passed in 2017 for all departments and was extended for several months in 2018. The resolution was passed in reaction to the county’s financial crisis and the rejection of a 1-cent sales tax at the polls in August 2017 to deal with the finances.

Also, in January 2018, the Walker County Sheriff's Office and the Walker County Jail were trending together about $200,000 over budget for the year, although other departments were on track with spending. By March 2018, the General Fund was trending 4.5 percent over budget, or about $390,000. At the time, the Walker County Sheriff's Department posed the largest problem, trending an estimated $239,000 over budget for the year. By July 2018, the Sheriff's Office was trending $350,000 over for the year, and the commission imposed spending restraints through Sept. 30, the end of the last fiscal year. 

The commission would eventually increase the business license fees and the lodging tax. Sheriff Nick Smith has worked with the commission on finances since he came into office in January. Smith reported he was within budget and working to get $500,000 to $600,000 a year in fees from federal authorities to house federal inmates. Smith is also looking to hire more personnel down the road. 

Smith - who also has discretionary funds to draw from - did not ask for a budget increase for the new budget.

Commissioners are also set to get some revenue off the new state gas tax increase, although they also say that falls short of catching up with doing all the road and bridge work it needs to do. 

The first phase of the new tax increase, which is helping to fund the Rebuild Alabama program, is a 6-cent increase that recently went into effect. It will then go up 2 cents the next two years on Oct. 1 and will then be adjusted afterward based on an index. 

Walker County is anticipated to get $666,852 a year from the new tax increase, Short told the commission  recently. 

The budget will be the last approved by the commission before the March 3 primaries for the next term. As Democrats have not played a strong factor in recent years, it is widely expected that the next commission will be mostly or completely selected in the Republican primaries. All the current commissioners are Republican.