Letters: County should lower, not raise, taxes
Franklin County should strive to provide necessary services at the lowest cost to citizens. Franklin County leadership consistently fails to meet that standard. The 2020 -21 Franklin County budget is 400-plus pages long. We have reviewed each page and category. I fear the commissioners, who are in charge of spending your monies, have not done the same.
Long before a budget workshop deadline, staff should employ strategic thinking for their budgets. Rigorous oversight of constantly changing priorities, intra-year funding and unexpected changes should be factored in, but are not. Public workshops often ignore or dismiss public input, and too often reflect the status quo without challenging staff to do more with less.
A $1,200 bonus is proposed for all employees! But county employees enjoy full employment. Some receive substantial overtime or even raises in the proposed budget, while also receiving stimulus checks from the federal government. A bonus is unnecessary and a bit tone deaf.
The continuing divide between county employees and constitutional officers widens further: County employees receive an average salary of $32,000 while the salary of constitutional employees is 19 percent higher, averaging $40,000. What justifies that? When will we take this disparity in earnings seriously? Why not forego the proposed bonus for constitutionals this year, thus allowing salaries of department employees to close the earnings gap?
We believe such inconsistencies demonstrate the failure of conscientious budget oversight by commissioners.
Here are some additional budget specifics I ask you to review:
1. Per capita, Franklin’s budget exceeds that of most counties in the state. This would be the fifth consecutive year of net tax increases. Proposed budget dismisses the lower rollback rate proposing a 1.48 percent increase in taxes. The proposed budget is a 7 percent budget increase from $58 million to $62 million.
2. Franklin County has received millions in grants for Hurricane Michael and COVID-19, yet monies disbursed to different departments were not factored in to this budget.
3. Budget preparation follows the “We’ve Always Done It This Way” pattern. But with careful analysis, programs could obtain substantial cost reductions without service reductions. New spending initiatives like hiring a code enforcement officer or economic development professional can’t find the financial oxygen without creative thinking.
4. Without appropriate financial oversight, budgets inflated for specific purposes one year often automatically include that same amount the next year. Commence zero-based budget protocols to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
5. Limit fourth quarter spending. Unspent monies at the end of the year are creatively spent rather than turning the excess back in. Create a county policy to address this failure of leadership.
6. Sheriff’s budget shows a slight decrease; average pay rises to $37,777. Operating expense shows a large decline from $1.67 million to $1.41 million, but contractual services shows a major increase from $237,000 to $360,000. Why?
7. Property appraiser’s budget has a much higher cost per parcel than neighboring counties. Seven employees receive the highest average pay in the county; proposed salaries are increased from $42,353 to $44,503.
8. Tax collector’s budget is flat. Average pay is $37,966.
9. Road department’s budget is flat. Average employee makes $33,211.
10. There has been a substantial increase in capital equipment purchases in the last two years with this year being the most numerous in memory. Proposed capital spending approaches $2.5 million for new tractors, excavator, multiple road vehicles, knuckle boom truck and a very expensive ($892,500) tub grinder. I saw no competitive pricing estimates nor any added fuel or maintenance costs to support the 1,000-hp tub.
11. Solid waste shows no budget increase with an average salary of $33,943. I believe solid waste costs could be greatly reduced with countywide garbage pickup. Single payer could reduce service costs and savings could be returned to the public.
12. Parks and recreation proposes a 2.01 percent increase and has an average salary of $29,551. Increased spending on youth sports and property insurance bears scrutiny. What happened to the money budgeted this year for sports that never happened due to COVID?
13. No information was given on Weems’ raises, whether awarded or not. This demonstrates poor accountability and transparency.
14. TDC budget continues to expand; bed tax likely to be raised to 4 percent after commissioners voted to schedule public workshop. With long-term occupancy high and many public accommodations closed, why the need for an increase? Because they can?
15. Health Insurance costs and better rates need to be investigated. A 10 percent rate increase was budgeted, although final rates are not available. With health Insurance costs of $1.7 million, such a huge increase needs justification. Cost sharing is done by other businesses and governments to help reduce health care costs. Finance should research this and admit we have been overly generous.
16. The county normally receives approximately $5 million in fee and sales tax revenue. Is there planning for the negative impact expected from COVID-19?
17. Unbudgeted, and unanticipated revenue, often totaling hundreds of thousands, even millions may be received. How is that folded into budget planning so as not to raise taxes unnecessarily?
18. The county has almost $14 million cash carried forward dollars. Better management of this money could positively impact taxpayers.
19. The county holds more than $2 million in contingency money in multiple accounts.
20. Fine and forfeiture funds contain large amounts of unspent cash including a phantom $600,000 reserve. Why?
These are Your monies in this budget. Please pay attention! County leadership has a constitutional responsibility to do a better job than they have in the past. Ask your commissioner a question on the budget; they’ll likely not know the history, need or future of this or that specific topic. If we can read and analyze the proposed budget, shouldn’t you expect your commissioner to do the same? They must do more than give lip service to this most important duty of their office.
Let your commissioner know you want reductions, not increase in your taxes. Always remember, we get the government we deserve.
Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc.