11/18/07 — Wayne County budget process starting early

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Wayne County budget process starting early

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 18, 2007 2:15 AM

It's only November, but Wayne County Manager Lee Smith is already beginning to look ahead to the 2008-09 budget and some of the big-ticket projects and expenses that might be coming down the line.

"It really is starting early, but a lot of it is to get the board (of commissioners) better prepared," Smith explained. "2008 is going to be a big year in a lot of ways."

He explained that by the board's annual January retreat, he hopes to have a strong set of cost estimates and projections already available so that the commissioners can begin making some funding decisions.

Among the items the county is likely to look at next year are several capital projects.

"We will be talking about services on aging, the health department, social services and the jail," Smith said.

He explained that while he doesn't expect to actually build any of those next year, he would like to at least start looking at designs, site selection and land acquisition.

"I think we have to look at what we can afford to do," Smith said. "We're going to have to time those things out."

Currently the county is in the process of studying all of those issues.

The options for the jail, which routinely holds about 50 more people than it was built for, are either to renovate it or build a new one off site. According to a recent study, the necessary renovations would likely cost about $52.2 million, plus another $3.48 million in operating expenses, while a new jail would likely cost about $43.93 million -- excluding land acquisition -- plus another $2.64 million in operations.

Options for the other three county services are still being weighed, but Smith said he would like to move out of the old Wayne Memorial Hospital on Herman Street as soon as is feasibly possible.

"It's just not efficient. We've got some major issues over there," he said. "We'd love to look at renovating an existing facility, but it looks like we may be moving away from that."

Of, course, he continued, there are also the schools to worry about.

With the county school board settling on a nine-project $120 million priority list in July, the two sides are still trying to work out the details of what all the capital and operating costs will be, what the funding options are and where the money should be spent.

And, Smith said, while it's unlikely the whole list could be funded next year, it might be possible to get started on some of the smaller items.

"If the two boards are able to agree on some priorities and revenue sharing, I think next year and the next couple of months, the conversation on the school projects will be pretty interesting," he said.

Capital expenditures, though, aren't all the commission may be looking at next year.

Other potential projects include the continued implementation of the county's comprehensive plan, a consolidated master utilities plan for the entire county and the possibility of investing in either a physical shell building or a virtual shell building program for economic development.

But in order to pay for any of those projects, the commission will have to know what their funding streams are going to be -- the second reason Smith is starting early.

Among the variables in next year's budget are the constant increases in fuel costs, the school system's lottery revenues and any savings resulting from the state beginning to take over counties' Medicaid payments.

The Medicaid savings in particular, Smith explained, is a pretty large wild card as it could total up to $1.37 million.

"Until we know what that's going to be, we need to be pretty frugal with it," he said. "I think we need to be cautious with that until we have a good history. The Local Government Commission says you can't necessarily obligate that money yet."

Also a wild card will be the local option quarter-cent sales tax, which the commission can put to a public referendum as soon as the May primary. In order to do so, though, he continued, it's something that the board needs to make a decision on soon, and something that will have to have a defined purpose. It could total up to $2.57 million.

Currently the commission is planning to discuss the matter at its Tuesday meeting.

But, Smith said, it is because of all those factors that he is trying to get started now, rather than waiting until crunch time next spring.

"We've got to look real carefully at what we're putting on people. Let's make sure we've got all the information. I know people get tired of hearing that, but what can we afford to do? That's what the commissioners are going to have to decide in 2008," Smith said. "I don't think this is too early."