County looking to iron out budget issues Tuesday

Alachua County Commissioner Mike Byerly, shown on the right in this Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, opposes the current proposed county budget.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Su
Published: Monday, September 9, 2013 at 6:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 9, 2013 at 6:26 p.m.

After weeks of debate among Alachua County commissioners over employee raises and property tax rates, residents can offer their perspectives this evening at the first of two public hearings on the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Interim Budget Director Steve Lachnicht, who is also the growth management director, said he expects the County Commission will resolve most of the remaining budget issues so the second public hearing later this month should be more perfunctory.

The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. at the County Administration Building in downtown Gainesville.

Staff has drawn up an updated budget proposal based on commissioners’ input over the course of many meetings in recent weeks. Major changes have been made, along with more minor tweaks, since staff presented the commission with its initial budget proposal in July.

The change that has drawn the most debate among commissioners and the biggest response from the public is the elimination of a 3 percent, across-the-board raise for county employees included in the original budget.

It was eliminated early on in the budget cycle because of financial constraints, but a 1.5-percent pay bump has been incorporated into the proposal commissioners will review, Lachnicht said.

However, he said County Manager Betty Baker would like to see a higher increase for county staff, if possible. One option could be to provide a bigger bump for the county’s lower-earning employees as a way to give them extra help. County workers haven’t received a real raise in six years.

“That’ll probably be the biggest decision to be made tomorrow is whether or not to increase the amount of raises for the employees,” Lachnicht said Monday.

While the county’s planned raise is skimpier than staff originally hoped for, the tentative fiscal year 2014 budget also shaved off some funding for maintenance work.

Certain maintenance plans for county buildings and equipment are being deferred as a cost-saving measure, Lachnicht said, and this carries its own consequences.

“There’s always the risk that the longer you wait to maintain things, the more they cost,” he said, using the county’s hefty road repair backlog as an example. The county can put maintenance off to a certain extent, but the longer it does, the shabbier its equipment and infrastructure get.

“The more you put these things off, the more likely you are to have breakdowns,” Lachnicht said.

The county also is putting off some capital improvement projects scheduled for work in fiscal year 2014.

Commissioner Mike Byerly said he probably won’t support the final budget because he disagrees with the direction it would take the county. He said the county is on the same kind of path for the upcoming fiscal year that it took during the budget process for the current one, but to a greater extent.

He said he is worried by the way the county is spending down its reserves and fund balances to unhealthy levels, which puts itself on a problematic trajectory.

He said he also is concerned about forgoing infrastructure and building maintenance, which will end up costing the county more money later on, and by what he considers an insignificant raise for employees.

“This rather meager raise that we’re putting together doesn’t even cover the cost-of-living increase,” he said.

Byerly said he believes the commission should have set its tentative general fund property tax rate for fiscal year 2014 higher. He said he wanted to put it at a high enough level to pay for a full 3 percent raise as planned and, preferably, to restore prior cuts to environmental protection and social services programs as well.

If the commission is able to steer county government onto a healthier path through further spending reductions and other changes, he said he might be able to vote in favor of the final budget.

However, he said it will be hard for him to support it if his fellow commissioners stick to the path the county is poised to continue down for the upcoming fiscal year.

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