MOULTON — Level funding except for employee raises in the fiscal 2022 Lawrence County budget left the sheriff unhappy, but the County Commission and county administrator said money was not available to meet every department’s wants.
The Lawrence County Commission recently passed a general fund budget of $6.08 million in revenue and $5.9 million in expenditures. Of that amount, the Sheriff’s Office received $2.3 million, and the jail received $1.26 million.
The County Commission did give all full-time employees a 3% cost-of-living pay increase, and step raises are available for eligible workers.
Sheriff Max Sanders requested the addition of two deputies, two corrections officers and at least one vehicle.
“And got none,” he said. “I was not surprised at all. I know the money is tight. I understand. We are really needing at least one more deputy on night shift and, overall not having an adequate number of deputies is hurting our patrol. It’s our job to protect the community. We’ll do it the best we can with the money we have. I do appreciate the work the County Commission does for us.”
He requested the same last September for the fiscal 2021 budget and was turned down.
The Sheriff’s Office and jail budgets in fiscal 2022 total $3.56 million or 60.3% of the general fund budget. In fiscal 2021, the budgets for the Sheriff’s Office and jail totaled $3.53 million or nearly 61% of the general fund budget. The 2020 general fund budget included $3.43 million for the sheriff and jail.
County Administrator Heather Dyar Rose said the Sheriff’s Office and jail are not alone in budget concerns.
“Even with the slight growth we are experiencing in our sales tax, and increase in ad valorem for FY22, myself, along with county accountant Mechelle Graham, recommended level funding to the commissioners,” Rose said. “This is the second consecutive fiscal year we are ending the year in the black. We have not had to make any transfers into the general fund to make fiscal year end in black. ... Some department heads were not happy with the decision to level fund, but we have to make realistic decisions based on what revenues we have.”
Sanders said the state changed the sentencing guidelines because of the COVID-19 pandemic and that is putting more pressure and work on his staff.
“(The state) is putting more prisoners in county jails, not just here, but it’s a problem across the state,” he said. “I need more correctional officers to handle the extra work. At times, we have two jailers with 150 inmates. That’s not a good situation. We have an increasing need for jailers.”
County Commission Chairman Norman Pool said the general fund budget can be reviewed and amended during the year to provide more funding for Sanders or other departments.
“It’s a continuing battle with the County Commission and the Sheriff’s Office, not just here but likely every county in this state,” Pool said. “And they have a legitimate claim. But we have to have money to make it work. I’m not saying the sheriff didn’t need what he asked for. But we level funded everyone. The money just isn’t there. He didn’t get what he asked for, but he could get them before the end of the fiscal year. We have to see what happens.”
Sanders said he will continue to apply for domestic violence and drug enforcement grants. “I will use money in the discretionary fund for training, vehicles and equipment,” he said.
He added the school resource officer program is costing his department about $60,000 even after county school board pays the county $160,000 for four full-time SROs.
“We pay for two (additional) part-time officers, and we furnish all the SROS with uniforms, cars, gas,” Sanders said.
The County Commission receives a half-cent of the 9% Moulton city sales tax and 7% sales tax paid in the county. It also uses property tax revenue to keep the county operating.
According to Graham, the sales tax collections for the general fund continue to trend upward.
In fiscal 2021 the general fund received $1,127,972 from sales tax. In fiscal 2020, the sales tax total was $1.07 million. In fiscal 2019, it was $950,036. In fiscal 2018, it was $911,782.
District 4 Commissioner Bobby Burch said the commission agreed to absorb a 7% hike in health insurance premiums instead of a passing it on to employees. Last year, the county picked up a 5.5% increase in health insurance premiums.
Burch said the 3% COLA increase and health insurance hike is expected to cost the general fund about $200,000.
“(The employees) deserve every penny we can give them,” Rose said. “We have been in a pandemic going on two years now and it has taken its toll on everyone. Not once during this pandemic have we cut off services or shut down to the public. I know our tag department has caught a lot of negativity from the public because services were slow due to the implementation of social distancing policies at the courthouse. It was either limit numbers, or shut down completely. Not once have we shut down.”