MOULTON — Most Lawrence County employees will see less money in their take-home pay in fiscal 2020 if the County Commission can’t find a way to keep the county from operating at a deficit.
During a four-hour budget work session Wednesday, County Administrator Heather Dyar told commissioners that employee health insurance premiums are increasing 4.9% and the general fund can’t cover the increase if cuts aren’t made. She said health insurance rose 5% for fiscal 2019 and the commissioners voted to absorb the increase instead of passing the cost to the employees.
Dyar added that step raises and cost-of-living raises for county employees are not in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
“If we didn’t pass the 4.9% increase to employees, it would almost be like a raise,” she said. Employees with family health coverage pay $380 a month, Dyar said.
She estimated the county absorbing the insurance increase would cost the general fund about $60,000.
Two department heads, Probate Judge Greg Dutton and Revenue Commissioner Brad Henderson, each asked for an additional clerk to ease the departmental workload. Last month, Sheriff Max Sanders asked the commission for an extra deputy. But the commissioners said the money is not available and instead job cuts might be needed even if the proposed budget is level funded from fiscal 2019.
“We might need to cut the non-essential services,” Dyar added. She listed a $50,000 appropriation to NARCOG for county transportation services, and cuts in aging, extension service, archives and probate and revenue offices might be unavoidable. “All travel, training and trips to conferences might have to stop,” she added.
Commission Chairman Bobby Burch said the senior centers may need to have more fundraisers in an effort to be self-sufficient.
The current proposed total county budget is $14.6 million with expenditures being $14.3 million, of which $5.4 million is for salaries.
Dyar said the revenue includes about $660,000 transferred from the road and bridge department and the solid waste department into the ailing $5.7 million general fund portion of the overall budget. “If we didn’t make those transfers in, we’d be looking at a $700,000 deficit,” she said. “The tax base is not there to support the county.”
District 5 Commissioner Joey Hargrove recommended the county hire no new employees, give no step or merit raises and pass along the insurance premium hike to employees.
County Engineer Winston Sitton said the road and bridge budget — separate from the general fund budget — has money to provide a small cost-of-living and merit raise. He said the lack of merit raises will likely cost the county quality workers.
“Truck drivers and construction workers are likely to be lured away because of the upturn in the economy,” he said, pointing to the work being done on the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA site in Limestone County.
District 3 County Commissioner Kyle Pankey is saving the county about $50,000 serving as the interim solid waste department director. He is not being compensated for the duties. “We’ll use the money somewhere else in the department,” he said. The Solid Waste Department is not part of the general fund.
Burch and Dyar both expressed concerns about general fund employees being upset if non-general fund department workers receive pay raises and they don’t.
Dyar said it is essential for the county to generate more revenue to continue to operate at its current level. “We need to get out and educate the people where the money goes,” she said. “They think we’re sitting up here on a pot of gold. Next year, even with the transfers in, we could be facing a deficit.” She said a tax on nicotine products needs to be considered.
Burch suggested the commission approach state lawmakers about a possible special election in 2020 to implement a 2% sales tax increase. He said a special election might give the increase a better chance of passing than if it were on the ballot during a primary or general election. In a special election on Tuesday, Madison voters overwhelmingly approved a 12-mill property tax increase to help fund the construction of schools.
Commissioners said they plan to have two or three more work sessions to finalize a budget before Oct. 1.
The commission meets at 9 a.m. Friday for its regular scheduled meeting.