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By Christa Jennings
Senior Staff Writer
During its two-part meeting for the month of September, the County Commission spent time at both meetings reviewing the proposed budget for fiscal year 2024, as well as handling standard county business for its monthly meeting.
During the first meeting it was stated that the county was still waiting to receive two contracts, which would be included in the commission’s approval of the annual budget, appropriations and contracts. As such, the budget was tabled, and the commission recessed until September 21, with the budget up for final discussion and approval at that time.
During the reconvened meeting, County Administrator Amy Gilliland stated that the county does not have anymore American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds left to spend. She explained that anything remaining in the county fund from ARPA is already earmarked.
She further stated that health insurance rates increased by 3.5%, adding that without the ARPA funds the county is having to absorb that and is “looking for every penny” to help with that cost.
In discussing the budget, appropriations and contracts, Gilliland told the commission that the county was sent requests of more than $40,000 in appropriations, stating that “we don’t have it.” She said that while the county is thankful for all those who asked for appropriations, the money is “very tight” this year.
In further discussion, Gilliland said that the county cannot have “wasteful spending,” stating that everyone will “really need to think hard” before spending any money. She added that she has asked the departments to be as frugal as possible with their budgets.
She went on to review the county departments and provide overviews of all of the department budgets, as well as the overall budget for the county.
Upon reviewing the department budgets at the September 21 reconvened meeting, Sheriff Michael Howell spoke up stating a request for the “highest amount” raise possible for his deputies and correctional officers.
In ongoing discussion regarding Howell’s request, Gilliland used her budget for the commission office as an example, stating that she is not getting a raise this year. However, she said she has four employees in that budget, and they are getting a 50-cent per hour raise, based on what was available in the department’s budget.
She added that the county is completely absorbing the employee health insurance increase of 3.5% so that the increase is not passed on to employees.
Gilliland further stated that they would have to “play with the budget” to try to see about the raises Howell requested at the meeting for the Sheriff’s Office employees.
In further discussion, Howell said that he had 29 employees and that it would be $60,000 per year if they received a $1 per hour raise.
In related discussion, the commission discussed the school resource officer contract, with Gilliland explaining that in trying to find money for the 2024 fiscal year budget, they had reviewed the SRO contract. She said that the county is paying for two-thirds of the SRO, but that the officer is not working in the county two-thirds of the time, as that position spends the majority of time at the school.
In discussion she suggested that the Board of Education review it and to consider the board paying two-thirds of the SRO salary, with the county then paying one-third of it. She further stated that the county pays for the SRO vehicle, equipment, insurance, and other benefits.
Superintendent of Education David Stover said that he appreciated the county covering two-thirds of the cost all these years. He added that he gets a grant for the SRO each year so the $20,000 does nto come out of the board’s budget.
In further discussion, Stover said that he would take the matter before the board for discussion and consideration. He said that he was not opposed to paying more of the share of the SRO to help the county, but that he would need to check with the board first.
Further, Stover said that if the board were to approve paying two-thirds of the SRO and doing a new contract, then the board may need the county to help again more in the future if needed.
In ongoing discussion regarding the budget, Gilliland stated that the county had to approve a budget, with the deadline being September 30. She said the county could then amend the budget as needed, such as for the Sheriff’s Office raises and the SRO contract.
After discussion and review, the commission unanimously approved the 2024 fiscal year budget as presented.
In reviewing information after the meeting, Gilliland said that most funds remained “within a steady balance throughout the year.”
She said that the county budget for 2024 has an approximate increase of $600,000 for health insurance, property, liability, and worker’s compensation insurances.
Gilliland also said that the ARPA funds that were allocated for the EMS/ambulance department have been used and that the county’s general fund will absorb the EMS department expenses until the tag fee passes.
“This will be a huge expense, but the ambulance has been a huge asset to the county – making approximately 50 runs per month,” Gilliland said. “If the tag fee does not pass in the March election, we will not be able to sustain this much needed service to the county.”
In other business, the commission heard from County Engineer Tad Eason regarding multiple equipment purchases for his department. In reviewing the information, Eason said that all of the purchases were within his budget and that he was not asking for more money.
Eason further said that he tries to put 10% of his budget back into equipment. In reviewing the pricing information, he stated that all were from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama bid list, adding that the equipment can be bought without paying tax.
Ultimately, after reviewing the information and taking the equipment purchases one at a time, the commission unanimously approved the Highway Department’s purchase of two dump trucks, one lowboy truck, two motor graders, a pothole patcher, and an asphalt zipper.
The total cost for all of the equipment to be purchased would be $1,873,023. Eason provided salvage values for the department’s current equipment being replaced at a total of $832,500, making the difference a total of $1,040,523 for the equipment.
Those prices, however, also reflect the $57,000 owed for the previous purchase of a backhoe for the department.
Regarding the asphalt zipper, Eason said the current one is 4-feet, while the new one will be 6-feet, stating that the department will be able to do roads in three passes instead of five. He added that it helps in the long run and that it will pay for itself over time, with the asphalt zipper costing $275,000 after subtracting the difference in the salvage price of the current model.
Eason also said that the department could expect to have the new pothole patcher, which cost $72,777, within 15-30 days from the time it is purchased.
Other equipment is expected to take longer for the department to receive, with the Mack dump trucks and Cat 150 motor graders anticipated to not be delivered until next July or August, as Eason said they have to be ordered and take quite a while to get.
For coverage of the remainder of the County Commission meetings, see next week’s edition.