Franklin County commissioners weren’t unanimous when they last week tentatively approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, but they did get it done a little earlier than they did last year.
The kind of standoff, prompted by commissioners quietly and purposefully avoiding seconding motions for budget and millage approval, did not go late into the night as it has last year.
Instead, the commissioners divided along philosophical lines and approved at the first public hearing Sept. 5 a millage increase of about 8 percent, as they are poised to raise it from the current 5.9637 to 6.4705 mills.
The proposed budget would raise about $10.56 million in ad valorem property tax proceeds, an increase of a little more than $717,000 than this year’s $9.84 million.
In a report from Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson’s office presented at the outset of the meeting, Erin Griffith, in the finance office, said the new budget has about $310,000 in budget increases; a reduction of $100,000 funds due to an emergency expenditure of reserve funds to combat a glut of mosquitoes following flood, and to replace a failing attachment on the knuckle boom truck; and the inability to collect a $100,000 repayment from Weems Memorial Hospital that commissioners had asked for one year ago.
In addition, she said, the county saw a 1.1 percent reduction in its tax base, which translated to a decline of $100,000 in property tax proceeds.
Commissioner Pinki Jackel asked Griffith to detail the $486,000 in cuts that the county commission made at last month’s budget workshop. Griffith said the county’s decision to contract exclusively with Capital Health Plan for its health insurance had saved $324,000, the county health department request had been sliced from $86,190 to $50,000, an $80,000 grant match for an access road to the St. George island fishing pier was taken out of the bridge maintenance fund, and the parks and recreation department budget request had been trimmed by $30,000.
Griffith also noted that the budget increase of $310,000 was due to a $95,000 cost shift from the state for Medicaid responsibility, a cost shift from the state of 3 percent for state retirement, and other small increases in department budgets, of about $106,000 in county budgets and about $88,000 in the budgets of the constitutional officers.
After Chair Cheryl Sanders opened the hearing for public comments, several residents came forward.
Ben Houston, from Bald Point, said he bought property in 2001 and moved down in 2006, after coming here since the early ‘60s. A retired food technologist from the University of Georgia, Houston said he had done work for Quaker Oats, General Mills and other multinational companies, including travel in South America.
“In the real world of business a manager has to be ready for the ups and downs of the business cycles,” he said. “One of the main duties of a manager is to work with his people to keep it in the black.
“(They say) ‘The truck is in the ditch; that is why we hired you. It is up to you, or we will shut this plant down,’” Houston said. “I see a lack of discipline the county has in handling its business. Please start considering smart options rather than just increasing taxes. Tough times equal tough decisions.”
Lockley, Feifer lock horns
Alan Feifer, who represents the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County tax watchdog group, was typically blunt in observing what had happened earlier in the meeting, when the county’s oystermen had reported on the state of the bay.
“You’d have to be almost tone deaf and have a total disconnect after listening to the oystermen,” he said. “They’re in such bad shape and you have such empathy. Isn’t that a disconnect? Doesn’t that sound wrong” It’s like you say one thing and do another.”
Feifer said the commissioners suffer from “a culture of inaction” and that the previous budget workshop had been “cut off before debate.
“Who do we serve? Do we serve ourselves sitting up there or do we serve the people of Franklin County?” he asked.
Feifer said he his group had made several suggestions for cost cutting, which he described as “easy low-hanging fruit.
“There’s just no appetite to talk about this stuff,” he said. “Where is the leadership tonight? In this one thing you can affect keeping taxes the same. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars of low hanging fruit.
“Your answer could be silence,” said Feifer. “It’s awful to say to them (the oystermen) that we’re going to double slap you. Where do you get the nerve?”
Jackel told Feifer that some of the his ideas had been suggested. “There has to be a consensus of this board to seriously engage in those cuts from wherever they come from,” she said. “We have to be in agreement and I have not seen the agreement in this board to make the cuts.
“I said publically the budgetary process in our county is broken,” she said. “I think there needs to be some committee work in place. Committees need to be formed early in the year, in February and March. It’s not fair to tear their budgets apart in 15 minutes.
“We need to invest more time in working with them, instead of being the people sitting up here with big axes,” Jackel said. “For me to come in as a commissioner does not translate to working as a committee. It does not translate to moving us to a consensus.”
While all five commissioners have supported a plan to earmark $200,000 for an $1,100 across-the-board pay increase for the 165 county workers, Jackel said she had a problem with budgets that have included raises prior to the across-the-board raise.
“I believe county employees do need an increase, every one of them. I think it needs to be meted out on a fair and equal basis,” she said. “This year it will not be done on a fair and equal basis.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley took issue with Feifer’s suggestion that commissioners had ignored his ideas. “I considered some of them. Some of them we moved on and some we didn’t,” he said. “I don’t think they be that good at this time.”
Lockley said Feifer had acted “like a child” in his outrage. “We’re not playing up here; this a is a business situation,” he said. “I’ve done what I did and I’m satisfied.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish noted that “it takes a consensus of the board to move some of this stuff. One commissioner is not allowed; it takes the whole board. Some of the (Feifer) proposals I don’t think need to be acted on personally.”
Parrish said the commissioners had taken heat for their decision to go entirely with Capital Health Plan, which lacks providers in Bay County.
“A lot of people had established r4elations with Panama City,” he said. “I caught trouble about this moving everybody to Tallahassee. We made the cut and we’re catching a little flak for it.
“I haven’t had a raise in my private business for 10 years; we have to deal with what we have to deal with,” Parrish said. “Things are not good in the economy. It’s tough, it’s a tough one for everybody. The bills keep coming but the money’s not there.”
Gail Riegelmayer, who also speaks for the Concerned Citizens group, said he supported pay raises, but not across-the-board. “The way to consider increases is based on performance. Across-the-board do not benefit anybody, even the people who work hard. When you do blanket raises that is a disincentive for your superstars and, people who do a good job. (They ask) ‘Why should I bust my butt? And they get the same rate that I get?
“It should not be based on seniority, it should be based on contributions,” she said. “I do not deny anybody a raise as long as they’ve earned it. You pay for performance.”
No appetite for further cuts
Jackel suggested she was concerned about funding the health department at the same rate as Gulf County, even though Franklin is a smaller county. But Sanders said the money would be used for much-needed dental services, and no further cut was made.
Lockley asked to look at the library budget, and wanted the monthly rent subsidy kept at $1,000, and not boosted to $2,700. “I’m not against that library (but) you don’t need no 13 acres of land. I’m for the building, that’s where the library is, that other stuff you don’t need it. Sell the land and pay for the library,”
Lockley’s colleagues did not back his proposal.
Jackel also asked for taking funds out of capital outlay to help lower the millage rate but Griffith cautioned about using a one-time revenue source to cover recurring expenditures, since those expenditures must be covered in subsequent years and require a further millage increase.
Feifer came forward to propose a 2 percent across-the-board decrease in spending. “We can always shift money around later,” he said, noting that the cut would reduce the budget by $210,000. “Try to give taxpayers a little help this year. Move forward with that and call it a day. It tells the public ‘Yes we can do something even though it’s late in the game.’”
Parrish said making up for it later would mean taking money out of reserves and he was against that.. “That reserve to me is basically sacred,” he said. “It’s got to be something detrimental to the people of the county to mess with that reserve. It’s not something just to be spent, to throw money around.”
Jackel said she would move “to cut 2 percent or 1 percent but I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to do that because I don’t agree with raising the taxes at all So that’s sort of a hypocritical position to put it in.”
Massey interjected that this was “because you like to spend it too,” a veiled reference to expenditures of county money on projects within Jackel’s district. But she brushed off the comment, noting that “I’m a woman, I like to shop, my mother did that to me. I’m stuck with loving to shop.”
Jackel continued to push for the 1 percent cut. “I believe anybody can cut 1 percent, if you ask for $1 you can leave with 99 cents. I don’t think you’re going to go away terribly dissatisfied.
“These are numbers in black and white but they are faces and they are services. It’s not easy to take a hard line and I choose to do that because I believe that we can have our taxes at a level rate. I do not believe we can do it tonight, but I think this board going forward to next year has to send them (department heads) that message early in the year so they know how to plan for budget time. So we have sent a clear concise message that we are in agreement and holding hands as a board.”
The commissioners weren’t holding hands as a board when it came time to approve the millage. Lockley said he wanted a unanimous vote and his colleagues appeared to agree, as Parrish’s motion died for lack of a second.
After a return from a break, the same scenario recurred, but this time Jackel appeared willing to break the logjam.
“I am going to do something that’s probably going to surprise everybody but I’m going to say that I said that I would uphold the law when I took this job and I’m not mandated for a 5-0 vote. We don’t operate by supermajority on this board.
“We have a legal obligation to meet tonight and if this was the final budget meeting I would not be considering seconding Commissioner Parrish’s motion so we could make a vote on this tonight. But I am going to consider it because I’m not going to let this board suffer through stalemate tonight. Last year we were here to 10 p.m. and we didn’t change anything.
“When it comes down to the final vote on this budget, if it is still the millage rate that is tonight, I will not support it. That’s the bottom line for me. It is not final, it can change, I will bring back a list of suggested cuts to the final meeting that will equal the millage that we posted and collected last year.
I want all the commissioners to understand that I’m not supportive of this being the final millage rate. I am conflicted in doing this. In many ways it is an excuse to leave tonight and not resolve a problem, it can be viewed that way,” she said.
Massey interjected quickly, with the question “Are you going to bring back the stuff where there are cuts are at?” and then quickly seconded the motion.
“Is there going to be commitment on the part of this board to examine cuts? Are we really going to take a hard look at cuts and begin with a 2 percent cut?” asked Jackel.
“I ain’t looking at a 2 percent,” said Lockley.
The motion to raise the millage passed 3-2, with Lockley and Jackel opposed.
Lockley then moved to approve the budget, seconded by Parrish and it carried 4-1, with Jackel opposed.