County considers cuts, layoffs and 4-day week in response to tax vote

Monday, November 10, 2003
County Judge Ed Robertson (left) was on the edge of his seat as Election Commissioner Levi Phillips read the results of Tuesday's polling on the county's one-cent tax proposal, which lost by a wide margin. CCN / Ken O'Toole

Reeling from Tuesday's defeat of the county-wide one-cent sales tax, members of the county's planning committee met to prepare to keep county operations running while facing a $100,000 shortfall on Jan. 1

Discussion initially centered around the possibility of laying off 22 to 23 employees in various departments before consensus was reached that operating county offices four days a week would be the most equitable way of sharing the pain.

"This is not a band-aid," said Justice of the Peace Eva Reeve, who chairs the committee. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel ---- at least not until five years from now when the jail is paid for."

The county's half-cent dedicated sales tax approved by voters in August 2000 can be used for central dispatch and roads after the jail project is completed.

Anticipated revenue for 2004 is $3,218,641, of which, for budgetary purposes, only 90 percent, or $2,896,777 will be available for planning, according to final figures developed by County Treasurer Cindy Collins after the election results were known.

County Judge Ed Robertson said that certain essential operations, such as law enforcement, will naturally not be closed the additional day, but that all county operations will be impacted by a 20- to 25-percent reduction of present operational funds and employees on the job.

The most insulated of county operations appears to be the Western District Ambulance Service District, which has no employees. The ambulance district is financed by a special milage on personal property, and contracts for ambulance service in the county's Western District, excluding the City of Eureka Springs, which currently has the contract.

Robertson indicated that a replacement will not be hired to take the place of Airport Manager Bob Pittman, whose resignation is effective later this month. Rather, the road department can be responsible for mowing the airfield. He did not address other responsibilities assumed by Pittman.

Even library operations in the county were thought to be impacted, despite governance by a board appointed by the quorum court. Some library employees are county employees, and consideration was given to cutting their hours to accommodate the across-the-board reductions.

In the sheriff's office, Robertson indicated that while investigators' work cannot be curtailed, cuts could be made in patrol operations.

Robertson indicated that there will be employee layoffs in the road department.

The judge also expects cutbacks in work at the road department, which is additionally hampered by a significant number of bridges that have been, or have to be, replaced without state or federal financial assistance.

In Eureka Springs, the marriage capitol of Arkansas and Mid-America, the closure of county offices on Friday could have a major impact on the wedding industry there. As the county generates a sizeable income from the issuance of marriage licenses, it seems likely that certain workers' hours could be curtailed so they could work on Fridays and Saturday mornings, and take off early in the week.

The City of Eureka Springs may also face a rent increase for its offices in the Western District Courthouse. Currently the city pays $750 per month to the county for the office space on the first floor, and $1,912 to lease the parking lot from the county. Robertson indicated the county should get at least 80 percent of the market value in rent for the space, and that the parking lot lease may need to be readdressed.

Carroll County 911 Manager Candace Bawcom faces an additional problem before she can come up with a proposed budget for her department, due to a legal question as to whether money from the county's half-cent sales tax for a new jail and central dispatch facility can be used for 911 operations. It is hoped an opinion from Attorney General Mike Bebee will clarify the issue.

Salaries of elected officials are also not immune to the cuts. "Will the quorum court ever get paid again?" JP Reeve queried, evoking laughter. The JPs have been voluntarily returning their checks to the general fund for the past few months.

It is possible that salaries of the county judge and county sheriff could be cut by as much as $10,000 each, and the salaries of other elected officials cut by $8,000 each, and still be in compliance with state law.

Meanwhile, with 2004's estimated revenue being at $3,218,641, the county currently pays $3,014,237 in combined salaries, Social Security, retirement, unemployment, workmen's compensation and insurance for the county's 100 employees.

Without adjustments, that leaves only $200,000 to cover other expenses, ranging from paper clips to maintenance of office equipment.

An ordinance will be drafted to reflect the four-day work week proposal which the quorum court will consider at its regular meeting on, ironically, Friday, Nov. 21 ---- possibly the last Friday meeting the justices of the peace will have.

Robertson hopes to have the ordinance in place in time for the cuts to take effect in December, in order to effect enough cost savings to carry county operations into the first part of 2004 when revenues are at their slowest.

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