04/18/07 — Best: Schools late on budget

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Best: Schools late on budget

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 18, 2007 1:45 PM

Every year the Wayne County Board of Commissioners funds more than 100 departments and outside agencies. So far this year, the only budget proposal County Manager Lee Smith has not received from those entities is one from the Wayne County Board of Education.

Last year the county gave the school system more than $17.9 million for operating expenses and more than $8.4 million for capital improvements.

This year, Smith knows those numbers are likely to go up.

Commissioner Jack Best is ready to know by how much.

"By law we have to have a budget in place by July 1," Best said during the commissioners' meeting Tuesday. And, he continued, it would be nice to have all the pieces in place well ahead of time so a responsible funding plan can be constructed -- especially when the schools make up 25-30 percent of the county's budget, which was more than $111.5 million in 2006-07.

"It's not fair for the school board to bring their budget to us at the last minute and want us to adjust to it," Best said.

To give the county manager a little more direction as he continues to work on the budget and also to give the school board a little push, Best suggested that Smith simply plug the school system's numbers in from last year and go from there.

"We've given them the opportunity for the last six weeks to give us their budget, so I think we need to go ahead and plan accordingly," Best said. "Since they have not seen fit to bring their budget in on a timely basis, put in what they got last year and categorize it.

"This will give them the opportunity to work their budget knowing what we're going to do.

"Last year they came to us in the ninth hour with their budget and they expected us to automatically adopt it. Well, you can't continue to do this. We can't continue to wait. Let's go on with our program. If they want to come back and ask for more money, that's OK."

This year, the commissioners not only are expecting the school system to present a budget for operating expenses, but also an expansive capital outlay schedule as the school board puts the finishing touches on a long-term facilities plan.

Once that budget proposal is in hand, Best and the rest of the commissioners are hoping they will have the opportunity to sit down with the school board and work through their request.

"They have to have a priority list of where they want to spend their money," Best said. "We're required to do certain things and certain things are extra."

The problem is, Smith explained, right now they don't know how much more the school board might need.

"By law, the county has to at least give what they did before, but I don't even pretend to think what (the school board is) going to bring," he said.

He does, however, anticipate getting its request at some point in the next two weeks.

Until then he can only guess.

"I know their budget's complicated, but so's ours. Until I get something all I really have to plug in is what they had before and I know that's not right," Smith said. "If you at least had some budget estimates early on, that'd make budgeting easier."

His budget recommendation is due to the county commissioners by June 1.

"The next 60 days are going to be busy," he said.

Fortunately, he and his budget team are already well into the process. They've been having back-to-back-to-back meetings with department heads and outside agency directors for the last week.

And so far, Smith said, things are going well as everybody is prioritizing their needs, presenting their cases for funding increases and showing how those will result in more revenue.

"The department heads have come with their strongest justifications in five years," Smith said. "They're getting performance budgeting now."