With no raise in six years, county enters talks with 3% pay hike intact

FILE PHOTO - The Alachua County Commission, from left to right, Robert Hutchinson, Charles Chestnut, Mike Byerly, Lee Pinkoson and Susan Baird, during a meeting in 2012.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 9:23 p.m.

The start of fiscal year 2014 is months away, but Alachua County's budget discussions have just begun, with employee raises and hefty budget cuts for the Sheriff's Office emerging early as top concerns.

County staff have prepared a tentative budget that factors in a 3 percent raise for county employees and nearly $2.7 million in reductions across multiple departments that operate under the County Commission.

Acting County Manager Richard Drummond presented the tentative budget to the County Commission on Tuesday, kicking off a budget discussion among commissioners, county employees and local residents that will last for weeks.

Drummond will retire from his post this month, with Deputy County Manager Betty Baker succeeding him as county manager as budget talks continue. The upcoming fiscal year will begin on Oct. 1 and run through Sept. 30, 2014.

In his budget message, Drummond stated that the county needs to provide raises for employees to both attract new talent and, most importantly, keep its existing talent. This would be their first raise in six years.

"Our employees are very aware that virtually every other government entity, both at the local and state level, is providing raises this year," Drummond stated in his budget message.

Many have given raises over the past six years while Alachua County's workers have managed without one. "Our staff is falling behind, and this has resulted in key staff members being targeted and recruited by other employers," he wrote.

Drummond made raises a top priority and challenged the government's various departments to make the cuts necessary to free up funding for a 3 percent, across-the-board raise for the County Commission's employees as well as the staff who work for the county's constitutional officers.

This year's budget message, he told the commission on Tuesday, is simple: It's about people. "It's all about the people who work for you," he said.

Of the nearly $2.7 million in proposed reductions submitted by the various departments that work for the commission, about $377,500 would be saved by eliminating 6.5 vacant positions, according to the budget message.

The county also anticipates almost $646,400 in utility savings thanks to its investments in energy-saving systems, particularly at the Alachua County jail. Inmate medical costs are expected to drop by $250,000 as well.

The Sheriff's Office faces $2.4 million in cuts due to reduced revenues, Florida Retirement Service and health insurance increases, as well as a rise in operating expenses and fiscal year 2013's fund balance deficit.

The budget proposal suggests several ways to handle the sheriff's budget shortfall, including reducing the reserves for the Law Enforcement MSTU.

The Law Enforcement MSTU faces financial deficiencies stemming in part from the county overestimating related revenues in the past, Growth Management Director and Interim Budget Director Steve Lachnicht said.

Another challenge is that the Sheriff's Office was especially hard-hit by the state-mandated Florida Retirement Service increases since it has employees in at-risk categories.

Lachnicht said the $2.4 million reduction is to the sheriff's certified budget, which is the budget Sheriff Sadie Darnell has requested for FY2014 that incorporates new state-mandated expenses as well as enhancements she would like.

Darnell told The Sun she is concerned about the lack of funding for public safety in the tentative budget. She believes government should provide core services first and use its remaining funding to pay for services that are nice to have but not as vital. In this proposal, she said she sees other areas being funded in lieu of public safety.

She doesn't think it is fair to be held responsible for the Law Enforcement MSTU's revenue issues when she has no control over it. She would argue the burden of the MSTU isn't hers to bear.

"How can I be held accountable?" she asked. "How can my agency be held accountable for a revenue stream over which I have no oversight, no control and no authority?"

The proposed $2.4 million reduction to her budget negates the financial gain of the funding the county plans to provide to give her employees raises, she said.

Darnell did not expect to take this much of a hit in next fiscal year's budget and plans to advocate for the same budget she received last year, plus additional funding to cover costs over which she has no control, such as FRS and health insurance increases, as well as for a couple of programs with expiring grant funding.

The county's gas tax fund, which is its primary source for road repair and maintenance monies, continues to have troubles. The expenses involved in providing transportation system services have been outpacing gas tax revenues over the past 30 years and will continue to do so, according to Drummond's budget message.

As the gas tax fund has continued to experience revenue reductions, the county has used fund balance reserves to maintain a steady degree of service. But this year's budget has been devised to stop utilizing fund balance in that manner.

County staff have developed a tentative fiscal proposal based on a continuation budget with a general fund property tax rate of approximately 8.9 mills, where one mill equals one dollar of tax for every $1,000 of taxable value. The county has a current millage rate of almost 8.6 mills.

The commission will discuss tentative millage rates on Tuesday during a 5 p.m. meeting at the County Administration Building in downtown Gainesville.

"This is a major milestone in the process. We obviously have to start somewhere," Lachnicht said. "It begins with the millage rate, and at least by setting the ceiling on the millage rate we will either settle or initiate the next round of discussions of where you go next."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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