As commissioners squabble, county gravitates toward 1.5% raise


Published: Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 9:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 9:14 p.m.

As several dismayed public works employees watched from the back of the room, the discussion grew tense Thursday during an unusually packed budget meeting as county commissioners talked about raises and bounced between debating past mistakes and considering future solutions.

Employee raises — which county workers haven't received in six years — remained central to the Thursday's budget talks. The county initially hoped to provide employees with an across-the-board, 3 percent raise, which would cost around $2 million, but is now considering a 1.5 percent raise that would cost about $1.1 million to implement.

The staff is considering postponing a heating and air-conditioning project for the Alachua County Criminal Courthouse for a year to free up $489,000 to put toward raises.

Several public works employees, some of whom took vacation time to be at Thursday's meeting, spoke about the dire need for raises. A couple of them mentioned colleagues who have to take personal time off to make it to their next payday because they can't afford the gas to get to work. Another said he'd disconnected his cable and home phone to save money and has had trouble affording his lighting bills.

One worker, wearing a tattered gray hat he bought when employees got their last raise, told the commission: "We work hard all day long in that hot sun, and somebody needs to step up and do something."

Also occupying the County Commission on Thursday was debate about recent budget missteps.

Commissioners, with Commissioner Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson absent, voiced concern when staff explained a problematic trend involving the county's fund balance.

The unspent money that remains at the close of a fiscal year is the ending fund balance, which rolls over into the beginning fund balance for the following fiscal year. The majority of it is one-time money that is meant to be used, if necessary, for one-time — not recurring — expenses.

The county tries to keep its fund balance from falling below $15 million but is in danger of doing so in the next few years. The county is projected to use about $5 million of fund balance money to balance the budget for fiscal year 2014, followed by $4 million in fiscal year 2015 and $3 million through fiscal year 2018, according to staff.

County Manager Betty Baker said this is a fiscally unhealthy trend and recommended using the commission's December retreat to work on developing a long-range financial planning strategy, which the board agreed to in a 4-0 vote.

Commissioner Mike Byerly was concerned by the staff's projections for the county's precarious fiscal future.

"What this tells me is that even if we put on rosy glasses looking to the future and make a conscious decision that we're never going to give our employees raises again, we're on a disastrous slide," he said.

The government has been cutting costs for too long without sufficiently adjusting its property tax rates to bring in the revenue it requires to cover its infrastructure needs, Byerly said — which he said includes taking care of its employees.

The county needs to start being more realistic about its need to bring in substantially more revenue, he said. He asked if it was still possible to send out new truth in millage, or TRIM, notices in order to allow the board to further raise the county's tentative property tax rates. County Attorney Dave Wagner said it might be, but his gut reaction is the county is too far in the budget process to do so, given its time constraints.

The county has set its tentative general fund property tax rate at 8.799 mills, which is higher than its present rate of almost 8.6 mills but lower than staff originally suggested, reducing its projected revenue by about $1.45 million.

Byerly told the board he was tired of the county's crisis mentality. "There's only a crisis because we created one," he said.

He cited the commission's use of $5 million in one-time money to fund recurring expenses for the current fiscal year, which he said it is supposed to make up for in the upcoming budget, as an example of a previous misstep.

Commissioner Susan Baird took issue with Byerly's response to Commissioner Lee Pinkoson's comments at one point during the meeting, arguing that it wasn't Byerly's time to make a rebuttal. Byerly countered that the meeting was a board workshop so the flow of discussion is different than for more formal proceedings and he said he would be an equal participant in the discussion.

Pinkoson told Byerly he didn't agree with using the benefit of hindsight to look back at the board's past decisions and call them irresponsible. "The decisions that were made last year, in my opinion, were logical," he said.

He took issue with a couple of Byerly's comments, including his point about the $5 million in one-time money used for recurring expenses this fiscal year. Pinkoson interrupted Byerly at one point to tell him he was putting out misinformation, to which Byerly replied that he has often thought the same of things Pinkoson has said but held his tongue.

While commissioners may not have had the exact numbers last year that they do now, Byerly said, they knew about the troubling trends and fiscal challenges they would face this year when they made those budget decisions.

Commissioner Charles "Chuck" Chestnut IV repeatedly called for the board to look forward and find solutions rather than rehash the past, emphasizing the need for a five-year budget forecast to help commissioners better understand the government's long-term financial situation.

"I'm tired of hearing this back-and-forth about different philosophies on last year's budget," he said.

Byerly agreed that commissioners should look forward but pointed out that it's not OK to walk away from the flaming wreckage without understanding what caused the wreck.

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

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