The 2018-19 Franklin County budget workshop was held in July and there were a few surprises. But first, accolades to Erin Griffith and Linda Phillips in finance for the great job they did in bringing the financial numbers together for the presentation.
The annual budget process is a three-step procedure.
1. Finance, at the direction of the clerk of courts office, requests all department heads and constitutional officers to submit their budget requests by June 1. They were further instructed not to request additional funds over last year’s approved budgets without appealing to the commissioners prior to the budget workshop.
2. The actual two-day budget workshop was held July 19 and 20. The proposed millage rate at the start of the workshop was 6.3460, more than the rollback rate of 6.1524. For your information, the rollback millage rate is a rate that would bring in the same amount of ad valorem tax as the current year, taking into account the higher assessed values by the property appraiser. At the conclusion of the workshop, the millage rate was tentatively lowered to 6.2762. But, with the growth in property appraised values, the proposed millage will bring in about $400,000 more ad valorem tax revenue than last year, and so, property owners will see an average 2 percent increase in their tax bills. You’ll see this reflected in your TRIM Notice sent out in the next couple of weeks.
3. Two separate budget adoption hearings will be held in September. Commissioners can lower the millage rate at these hearings, but they cannot raise it.
The proposed budget document of several hundred pages was not available until a few hours before the workshop so no one was able to study a detailed analysis of spending or find ways to offset cost savings. It is important to note that, while the ad valorem tax is the most noticeable and talked-about aspect of the budget, it is, in reality, only a small portion of the proposed $51 million revenue stream. The county takes in millions of dollars in other taxes, grants, revenue sharing, interest and fees that are uncounted in favor of concentrating on the politically visible millage rate. That means that Franklin County will take in hundreds of thousands of “extra” dollars this coming year, over and above ad valorem tax monies.
Here are just a few pots of income money that never seemed to be acknowledged by commissioners:
• $1 million in reserve in the general fund, and $600,000 in the fine and forfeiture funds
• Additional reserve fund cushions built into several department budgets
• Additional reserve for professional services
• Cash annually carried forward in the county budget of about $4 million
• Nearly $1 million in state revenue sharing
• St George Island fishing pier fund of $1.65 million
• Landfill escrow fund, for future closure, of close of $1.44 million
• Other miscellaneous funds containing millions of dollars
The list above is neither complete nor 100 percent accurate. We tried not to include restricted funds, and we do not claim to have the knowledge to understand every intricacy for such closely-held numbers. But the point to understand here is that our commissioners never really see these numbers, discuss them, or otherwise take responsibility for their accuracy. We very much wonder why that is. This income is an integral and important part of the county’s overall annual budget,
Incredibly, at the workshop, there was no discussion to justify why tax revenue must be raised again this fourth year in a row. None of the commissioners or staff suggested any increased spending could be offset with savings to be found in other areas. Simple math leads you to conclude that a less than 1 percent cut in the budget would have resulted in no tax increases next year. Again, why didn’t anyone look for savings?
We believe the Franklin County budget process is a bit of a shell game. Commissioners get to see only certain numbers and we don’t understand why. Publicly, the county seems to believe that ad valorem tax revenues are the be-all and end-all of the county’s budget. As we have tried to show, that is not even close to accurate.
Between now and the budget adoption hearings in September, we will review and study the budget document from a true business perspective, looking for suggested savings. We will present them to the board of commissioners for their consideration, once again in the spirit of helpfulness. Perhaps this year, someone will direct those great finance employees to noodle around and find enough savings to stop dipping into your hard-earned income.
We’d love to hear your opinions as well. Please email us with your comments.
Allan J. Feifer is president of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org