Cash crunch

Commission works to get a handle on Jefferson’s budget

CHARLES TOWN – In light of a seasonal cash flow crunch, the Jefferson County Commission is examining its policies to attempt to exert more control over spending.

In the first of two discussions on budget issues, the commission last week explored a variety of accounting and salary issues. The second discussion, on a further set of items, will be held this week.

[cleeng_content id="986193953" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]County Administrator Debbie Keyser said there has been some concern about the county’s finances.

“We need to continue to be cautious with our cash,” she said. “This is something that happens yearly. It is not unusual; we just have a time span of three months before the revenue starts coming in. So we, again, need to continue to be conservative.

“We do have monies coming in from the racetrack – so it’s not that we don’t have any money coming in – but last year we saw $2.5 million paid between payroll and invoices in the month of August, and so we currently have about $1.4 [million.]”

Keyser said one important step will be to try to sync the commission’s scheduled payments with their budget cycle, with property tax revenues mostly coming in in October.

“We can ask our department managers, elected officials and contingency agencies to review their portfolio of service contracts and needed expenditures to see if they can be moved until a little later in the year,” Keyser said. “There are a lot of service contracts that come due on July 1, and it may just be possible that we can move those to even August or September or October, and work with the vendors. I think that will help year after year.”

Keyser said another important step is ensuring that the commission’s departments, as well as the constitutional officers’ offices, are all on the same page with regard to the county’s finances.

“We need to improve our communications between our elected officials, department heads and contingency agencies and every employee so that they all understand the importance of meeting our financial objectives,” she said.

One major area of concern was a recent restructuring of the county’s accounting system for capital expenditures – purchases of over $10,000 meant to expand or replace worn out infrastructure like vehicles and buildings. The commissioners all worried that the $5 million capital outlay account has been steadily drained by a flood of smaller spending items.

“I have been looking at the capital account too, and you can see the dribs and drabs coming in,” said Commissioner Dale Manuel. “And it’s been depleting it. It’s going down, and it’s going down quickly.”

Keyser indicated that inappropriate, small expenditures from the capital fund were occurring. “There were also some other items that were put in there that were not big-ticket items, so one of the suggestions we have in here is that we need to be very clear to everyone to find what a capital outlay is.”

Keyser said much of the problem stems from a decision in this year’s budget to replace separate line-item capital accounts for the County Commission’s departments, as well as those appropriated for other elected officials, into a single line-item.

“The problem is that the monies were moved out of the individual budgets into the capital outlay, and not everyone understood that,” Keyser said. “So they didn’t realize that they needed to come before the commission and make presentations.”

Commissioner Patsy Noland agreed.

“It is harder to see what departments are spending if it is not contained in their budget,” she said. “And it is even more difficult for them to know what the County Commission has set aside for them to be able to spend. That is my biggest hang-up with this.”

Noland said the restructuring has reduced the county commission’s ability to control expenditures.

“I’m not convinced at all that we approved a lot of the expenditures that are occurring this year,” she said. “It is because of this capital outlay account that is making it very difficult for elected officials and department heads to know what they have to spend.

“I’m really hung up on having everything in capital outlay, because there really is no accountability on the part of elected officials or department heads.”

Keyser said that sentiment was shared by other department heads and elected officials.

“They’re in complete agreement with you,” she said. “They would like to see it within their budget so they are very clear. That’s an easy process to fix.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb said the commission should do a more detailed line-by-line examination of planned spending during the budgeting process.

“This is something I was very concerned about during our budget deliberations,” Tabb said. “It appeared that departments were putting in their wish lists for capital expenses. We never went over it and said ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ We’ve got to do our due diligence during budget season and go over every proposed expenditure, no matter what account they’re out of, and make decisions.”

Keyser also said that the commission was not being adequately informed of changes in salary expenses. “We just had one elected official that gave an increase of $1,000 annual salary for seven people. So, they have the ability to do that … but I think it is important that you know it.”

Noland said raises for employees can alter the long-run fiscal picture for the county, and so the commission ought to exercise more oversight.

“My concern is that these pay increases are being given now, and the county commission has to know what they are and when they come about because they affect stats. They affect the amount of money that will be given next year,” she said. “That’s how things get out of line. That’s why this whole issue got out of control in the first place.

“We have completely lost control of salaries and those line items, and that’s a big concern,” she said.

Keyser said salaries and benefits constitute more than half of the county’s spending.

“We spent $1 million more in expenditures than we received in revenue for fiscal year 2013,” she said, adding 57.7 percent of thebudget goes for salaries and benefits for full-time employees.”

Keyser suggested that the commission should compare its spending on wages and benefits to those in other counties in the state.

“I can tell you already,” Noland said. “We fall at the top.”

Manuel said a significant portion of the wage and benefit costs were attributable to the number of state troopers that are allocated to the county, which he maintained are artificially low.

“We all know that the problem is that the State Police only have approximately six state troopers at any one time in Jefferson County,” Manuel said. “They understaff us because the county will pick it up with law enforcement – deputy sheriffs and so forth.”[/cleeng_content]

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