04/21/09 — Official: Shortfall could cost workers

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Official: Shortfall could cost workers

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 21, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County employees could be seeing some unpaid holidays and possible changes in some benefits in the coming year as county leaders struggle to balance a budget for 2009-10.

County Manager Lee Smith, the Board of Commissioners and department managers finished up budget hearings last week and preliminary budget figures should be ready by later this week.

"I hope to get into mid-May to see what revenues are like because that is going to determine what I think I am going to have to cut because if this is a continuing trend, we have got some cutting to do," Smith said near the end of the week.

Smith said he does not expect to see any dramatic increases in the county budget for next year and has told department heads not to expect to see any increases.

"We are going to have to have decreases to be able to balance the budget," he noted.

Smith said he is unsure what his recommendations to commissioners will be until all of the information from the hearings is tabulated -- a job that should be completed by the end of this week. But that could mean some cuts in benefits for county employees.

"We are a labor-intensive industry," Smith said, noting the amount of money needed to make payroll each month. "People are concerned how it will affect their paycheck or benefits. We are looking at everything. I have told employees we are looking at issues like unpaid holidays -- several of those this coming year possibly. I may change some benefits, deductibles.

"Obviously, right now, there will be no increases of any sort for employees. I think we have done the right things over the last year. I am glad we positioned ourselves like we did like changing routes for inspections. Fuel prices are down so that helped, but I also monitor the number of gallons being used per month. It is down over 25 percent. I think with the idling policy that people are being more aware of costs. There are not driving as much. They are parking cars and 25 percent in fuel is a lot. That is several hundred thousand dollars."

Smith said he was concerned about price, but was more concerned about the number of gallons used and "that is down dramatically."

One area that has been especially disappointing is sales tax revenues coming back from the state. The county is running more than $2 million behind in that line item alone.

At one point, Smith said, he thought the county had received some good news in the form of an increase in sales tax revenues. The amount increased by almost $200,000 in December. But he later learned it was simply an accounting adjustment. January numbers showed a steep drop. Those for February will be available in May, he said. Smith added that he doesn't think they will be much better.

The reduction in sales tax is just one of the money problems facing the county.

Smith said the county is expecting to lose more than $3 million in Medicaid Relief funding come October.

And he added that Social Services and education costs continue to rise.

"You have got to remember expenditure in DSS and schools are not going down, that's the problem. You can control cost in certain areas, but in those areas they are not in our control. We are faced with falling sales tax and with the state taking sales tax on Medicaid relief."

The county would have been $2 million to $3 million ahead if sales tax revenues had kept "chugging along," Smith said, but instead the county is now that much behind.

Smith said property tax collections is about 96-97 percent, up some from previous years. The county also is watching payment of delinquent taxes pick up a "little bit" as well, he said.

However, the county continues to take a "big hit" where vehicle tax collection is concerned, he said.

There has been good news from some local manufacturers who have said some of their contacts are doing "all right" on their automotive work, Smith said.

"Some are not doing great," he said. "Some who have cut their hours back are putting some back in place. Maybe that it is a sign, but it takes it some time to get back to us. We are talking about something it takes six months to year to build. I hope it turns around."

Smith said most county departments held the line on expenditures.

There were some requests for increases, most notably the Health Department and DSS, where caseloads are up and they are asking for additional people.

"We are trying to find way to accommodate these client groups without adding people," Smith said. "I know it's tough and people are getting frustrated. Our problem is the revenues are not here."