County officials satisfied after seeing '21 budget

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(Part 1 of 2 parts) 

The Walker County Commission, which had a productive year and good financial condition in spite of COVID-19, will have a $11.5 million Fiscal 2021 General Fund budget, although a number of improvements are still on tap. 

The budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1, could be approved as early as Monday's meeting.  A budget surplus of $6,513 will be seen, after projected revenues of $11,478,700 and projected expenses of $11,472,186.77.

Commissioners appeared pleased after a 50-minute Tuesday morning work session on the budget, which was rescheduled from Wednesday due to a scheduling conflict. No concerns about the budget draft were expressed, outside of Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie asking briefly for a little more funding for office supplies and fuel. 

It was a stark change from a few years ago, when the commission was staring at possible bankruptcy, resulting in a number of cutbacks.

Chairman Jerry Bishop said after the meeting that the good economy before this year's pandemic helped to pull the commission through, despite fears local officials had about the economy when the virus caused some businesses to shutdown. 

Moreover, he said the commission has been able to put more money on the roads. Some of that has been due to the Rebuild Alabama program created from the increase of the state gas tax. The commission is going into the second year of the program. 

"We're leaving (the county) a lot better than we found it," Bishop said.

Bishop noted that even with the coronavirus, the trend of ordering online has captured revenue for the county, as in recent years a new law has allowed the state to collect sales tax revenue from online companies on behalf of local communities. Between that and the economy, the county did not have to dig as deeply into reserves as it feared. 

County administrator Robbie Dickerson led a PowerPoint presentation reviewing the previous year and some upcoming work, and then reviewed paper copies of the upcoming budget. 

Dickerson noted for the coming budget, the county needed to be conservative due to the unknowns of the pandemic. But the county's revenues are to the point "we really didn't suffer a loss. That is a big plus considering some of the things you hear on the news." 

Workers compensation and liability coverage did not increase in cost, which she said is a major accomplishment. Worker comp claims are the lowest she knows of since she started her position, adding that COVID-19 is not covered under worker's comp and everyone was still working. 

Health care costs will increase 5.5 percent this year, she said, on top of 5 percent the previous year. She always projects a 10 percent increase annually for that out of caution, so already there is savings in the budget. 

On appropriations, $50,000 is used from a lodging tax increase last year, helping to fund the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, the East Walker Chamber of Commerce and the Walker County Development Authority, the county's industrial development board. The Walker County Extension Office and the Walker County Community Action Agency have asked for $5,000 each, while the commission has also approved $5,000 already for the new transportation program the community action agency will take over. 

"That is a total of $65,000 but I do have budgeted $70,000, in case there is another," she said. Approval will for the appropriations are expected to be handled Monday. 

Noting security needs, Dickerson said the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs has "rolled all the grants over" due to the pandemic, and the county has $160,000 this year to spend.

District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt asked for a list of numbers on insurance increases in recent years. District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis expressed concern about continued increases cutting into funding for other services, saying the increases seen can amount to $85,000 to $90,000 a year. 

Dickerson said county officials, at the request of employees, are looking at changing from Tier 2 to Tier 1 on retirement, which may actually save money using a method the Retirement Systems of Alabama suggested that would not raise contributions. She wants to double check her figures and make a presentation Monday.
 
One goal this year is to provide the districts $280,000 each, amounting to $1.12 million. She said the figure could possibly even increase. 
 
She noted the Walker County Humane and Adoption Center is getting an increase in its budget, as the center needs someone to work 16 hours a week to eliminate overtime. The center has two full-time workers.