CHIPLEY — Everything except the county millage rate was discussed by the Washington County Board of County Commissioners Monday, July 29, when they held a special workshop.
The workshop was called Thursday so the commissioners could discuss the millage rate. The commissioners will vote on a millage rate Wednesday in a special meeting.
County Clerk of Court and Comptroller Linda Cook asked the commissioners to set the millage rate at Thursday’s meeting. She proposed a millage rate of 9.23 mills to the commissioners, up from last year’s rate of 8.9195 mills.
The county is required to set the millage by Aug. 4, Cook said.
Cook asked the commissioners to set a millage rate for the county board’s meeting in Chipley. “We need a decision on the millage rate, we have got to have this turned in to the state by Aug. 4,” she said. The commissioners avoided the millage question, however, instead looking at the county’s proposed budget for places to cut — including discussions of doing away with the jobs of county manager and a human resources director, setting a minimum county property tax of $250, taking away county employees’ paid lunch benefit, and increasing the amount county employees pay for health insurance among other ideas.
Most of the ideas came from Commissioner Todd Abbott, who opened the discussion.
“I just want to throw a couple of things out there,” Abbott said, “first and a citizen of Washington County, secondly as a taxpayer, and third as a county commissioner.”
Abbott said the county is facing a budget shortfall, and the job of budgeting for the county is not getting any easier.
“Has anyone contacted the constitutional officers to see what money they will be bringing back to the budget?” Abbott asked. “Have we thought about contacting them and seeing if they could cut their budgets by three percent?”
Abbott also suggested the county look into setting a minimum property tax of $250 for all residents. “The minority of residents are paying the taxes for the majority,” he said. “I think everyone who uses county services should have to pay taxes.”
Chairman Alan Bush noted that the county budget is facing unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments, which have increased the county’s financial woes. As the budget stands presently, the county is facing a $102,000 deficit.
“We couldn’t have predicted they would increase the amount the county has to pay into the retirement the way they did,” Bush said, noting that the county is being required to pay an additional $227,000 to the state employee pension program.
On top of that, the county’s ad valorem tax base has dropped about $228,000, due to declining property values.
“We have discussed this and discussed this — we knew this day was coming,” said Commissioner Charles Brock. “Why don’t we do something? Why doesn’t the county get prepared?”
“I said it before, we need a strategic plan for the county,” Commissioner Joel Pate said. “We’ve never had one, but we need to sit down and come up with a plan. This county has no plan whatsoever. Whatever someone sticks on the agenda, that’s our plan.”
“When times were good, the county spent and spent,” Commissioner Lynn Gothard said. “I don’t know if a tax increase is the road for us to go down or not, but I do know that if I take a decrease in pay at work, then I have to cut down on my spending.
“I believe we can balance this budget,” Gothard said, “and next year we can begin to plan.”
Abbott asked County Attorney Jeff Goodman about the $250 property tax.
“What is basis for the taxing authority?” Goodman asked. He said the county is limited in its authority to tax residents. “I would look at making it an MSTU and I would get away from talking about the Homestead Exemption.”
Goodman said the county had used its 1 cent small county tax option in 1993 so that was unavailable.
Brock asked about taking a sales tax increase to the people for approval. “A lot of our residents do their shopping in Panama City or Dothan, where they are paying eight or nine cents. Why are we still stuck at seven?”
Gothard also asked why the county manager’s salary was not spread out among the different department’s budgets. “He’s the county manager, he’s over all those departments, I don’t see why they don’t all pay a share of his salary.”
Bush noted that when the commissioners changed David Corbin’s job title to county coordinator and gave him a pay raise, they county was still saving money. “He gets a much lesser salary, we still saved thousands of dollars,” Bush said.
The county administrator salary was $85,255, Abbott said, and that was money the county saved by having Corbin fill in.
Gothard also questioned the $45,000 budgeted for a human resources director’s position.
“Why couldn’t we advertise that job at $24,000? We have a lot of secretaries who make less than that in the county.”
Abbott asked about $50,000 that is budgeted for travel expenses, and suggested the commissioners give up their $600 a month travel reimbursement. “We could give that money back toward the human resources director’s salary,” he said.
No one volunteered to give up their travel reimbursement.
“If a commissioner has travel expenses and wants reimbursement, he should get it,” Goodman said.
Bush asked how Holmes County handled human resources without having an HR director. “It’s a team effort,” Goodman said. “But you are talking apples and oranges here. Washington County is a whole other thing than Holmes County.”
Goodman said Washington County had as many public record requests in a week as Holmes County received in a year.
“It’s just the same two or three people doing that,” Bush said.
“Yes, but we still have to reply to them,” Goodman said.
Abbott was told the county spends $579 each month on health insurance for each of the county’s 160 employees.
“What if we cut that back to $400 and had the employees pay the $179?” Abbott asked.
“Our employees don’t make that much,” Bush said.
Abbott said county employees are also paid for their lunch hour, and suggested the county cut out that practice.
“You want to hurt 160 employees to save two positions?” Gothard asked Abbott.
Goodman noted that Washington County has no union contract with its employees, so cutting hours or health benefits would not have to be negotiated.
“I’m not willing to do that to 160 employees,” Gothard said.
“I’m just throwing out ideas,” Abbott said.
“Here’s the thing — we’re not getting anywhere, just throwing out ideas,” Brock said. “We need to just vote, yes or no. We can sit up here and talk all day long.”