Laying claim to budget dollars

Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 12:07 a.m.
Brimming with a $3.9 million windfall, Alachua County's proposed 2005 budget is full enough to prevent a relapse of last year's pain when departments were forced to deeply slice spending.
But that doesn't mean squabbling will be curbed. County officials are already starting to stake out turf for their own interests and goals.
County Commission Chairman Mike Byerly could box with Sheriff Steve Oelrich over cash for jail-alternative programs such as work-release and drug court. Byerly wants money for those programs rather than a proposed allocation to add jail beds.
Nabbing $500,000 for economic development is Commissioner Rodney Long's mission.
Commissioner Lee Pinkoson, meanwhile, wants the county to increase spending for roads and recreation, regardless of whether voters pass an added sales tax for those needs in the fall.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut wants to funnel more money to social service agencies.
And, now that she's got a pet dog, she is 100 percent behind a proposal to infuse the Animal Services department with some extra cash.
The wheeling and dealing among commissioners will start Thursday with a budget workshop, and it could get intense.
"It won't be anything uncivil," Pinkoson said. "But everybody has their interests and they will try to do what they can to see that their special interests - the things they want championed - are funded. They will fight for the money for that, and that's as it should be."
Millage unchanged The proposed countywide millage rate, which determines how much tax property owners will pay, is unchanged at 8.9887. Also levied countywide is .25 mills for the Alachua County Forever land conservation program.
A mill equals $1 per $1,000 in assessed property value, so the county rate will be almost $9 per $1,000.
Also, property owners who live in the unincorporated areas outside of cities pay a special tax for municipal services and for sheriff's road patrols. The municipal services rate is 1.7001 mills and the sheriff rate is 1.7816.
Countywide taxable value is $8.5 billion, a growth spurt of 8.8 percent. That will bring in an added $5.9 million above last year's property tax haul.
The total proposed budget is $217.5 million. It includes $3.9 million in savings from changes to state law regarding the cost of operating circuit courts.
Now commissioners must decide what to do with all that money.
Byerly has only one budgetary pursuit - money for programs that get minor lawbreakers out of jail. The programs include Drug Court, electronic monitoring and work release.
Diversionary programs are cheaper than housing offenders in the lockup, Byerly said. The expansion of such programs is suggested in a report of the Jail Assessment and Review Task Force, a panel formed to find ways to deal with jail overcrowding.
"These are programs that are intended to reduce, delay or perhaps eliminate the need for expansion of the jail. I want to fund these programs from the existing criminal justice budget. It will be reallocation of money," Byerly said. "If we fund these programs that (the task force) is recommending, there is a demonstrated reduction in the need for jail beds. We can spend the money on those programs instead and not have to house as many people in the jail."
The expansions recommended by the task force would cost about $639,849. About $103,000 could be offset by money from new revenues such as charges for work release or Drug Court.
One allocation in the proposed budget that Byerly is coveting is a $349,000 earmarked for 60 dormitory beds at the jail to ease crowding. Byerly said new beds will not be needed if the county beefs up alternative programs.
Byerly's proposal is not being embraced by Oelrich, who said more jail space is needed to house the people who judges deem in need of incarceration.
"I think these programs are absolutely appropriate but not at the expense of the jail. The Sheriff's Office doesn't sentence anybody to jail. We provide a secure detention facility for when a judge wants to put someone in jail," Oelrich said. "Maybe in years forward these programs may mean (there are) less people that the judges need to sentence to jail but right now we are bumping up against the maximum at our jail - or going over it - on a fairly routine basis."
Oelrich has proposed a budget of almost $57.2 million, a 6 percent increase above 2004. It includes operation of the jail and represents about 26 percent of the total county budget. The Sheriff's Office has about 42.5 percent of all county employees.
Economy key issue Economic development will be a key issue with some commissioners, especially Long. The proposed budget includes $250,000 for economic development but Long wants $500,000 for a trust fund.
The added money could come from the $3.9 million windfall. It would be used to provide buildings, assist new companies with services such as roads and water, help existing businesses expand and other efforts to create more jobs, Long said.
He envisions the city of Gainesville also creating a $500,000 program, for a total of $1 million.
"We're talking about infrastructure, not necessarily giving them cash money. We're talking capital projects - something that will put capital in the ground that stays if the business goes," Long said. "We need to fund the strategic objectives that we have developed, and sustainable economic development is one of them. The money is there. We need to spend it on our strategic objectives."
"That is my guiding principal," he said. "We can get a bigger bang for our buck spending it on economic development."
Another prime topic will be transportation. Pinkoson, for instance, said he will push for more money for roads and recreation.
Voters are set to decide in November whether to increase the sales tax a half-cent each for roads and recreation. A majority of commissioners also have indicated they support impact fees to improve roads and recreation.
Meanwhile, $1 million of the $3.9 million saved in the court system is slated to be used for the creation of a transportation trust fund to begin improving roads.
Pinkoson said he favors that and believes the county also needs to include more money to start tackling recreation shortfalls.
"Through the study on impact fees, I've realized that we really haven't put anything toward growth. Whatever additional revenue we get in goes to this or that, without really planning for capital improvements," Pinkoson said. "Obviously, looking at the backlog in infrastructure and recreation, we haven't done a real good job in the past as far as addressing even the most basic needs. Let's see how much we need to set aside to do that, to at least start the process."
Outside agencies Chestnut said she will push for increased spending in social services in addition to economic development
The budget for the Community Support Services Department is almost $10.1 million. The department includes programs for seniors, poverty reduction, the Health Department, Medicaid and "outside agencies" - not-for-profits that get county money. More than $1.5 million is proposed for outside agencies.
"My pet goal will be to push for increased spending in social services. In doing that, we are returning money back to the public by offering those services. The outside agency funding is where I would like to see more funds," Chestnut said.
One department that is getting a boost in this budget is Animal Services. An added $390,000 is proposed in the 2005 budget.
Animal Services is a troubled department. Its former director resigned earlier this year after a report critical of his management of employees. The employee culture has been described as combative. And the euthanasia of cats and dogs creates stress and emotional difficulties for employees.
County Public Works Director Richard Hedrick said he plans to have a new director in place by September.
Hedrick said the extra money will be used to hire two or three new enforcement officers and two new shelter employees.
The operation will be restructured to create a position of office manager. Another new position will be community liaison. That person will work with the many animal welfare groups in the county and to develop education programs.
Several commissioners, including Chestnut, said the overhaul is needed.
"I am very, very supportive of Animal Services. We need to do some capital improvements out there. We certainly need more staff," Chestnut said. "Sometimes where you stand depends on where you sit. Since I have become a dog owner, I'm very, very interested in protecting Brigham and his friends."
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or

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