JPs pass budget with job cuts but no layoffs
CARROLL COUNTY --Justices of the Peace passed the 2013 budget with little friction at Friday's meeting of the Carroll County Quorum Court. However, discussion intensified over the salaries of elected officials and the airport manager.
The $10.2 million 2013 budget absorbs approximately $250,000 of increases to retirement and health insurance benefits without significantly reducing county services, laying off employees, or increasing the county's bottom line.
In fact, the budget envisions spending cuts of about 0.3 percent from 2012.
Though no employees will be laid off, the budget does eliminate already vacant positions at the County Detention Center, dispatch, and the Sheriff's Office -- positions Sheriff Bob Grudek had said he hoped to fill.
Not doing so, the sheriff warned, could lead to higher overtime costs and risk overworking his staff.
JPs gave the county library system a reprieve this month, restoring their original funding requests. The libraries had earlier faced steep cuts, which would have eliminated funding for children's programming, books, and expanded computer services.
At the end of Friday's budget discussion, JP Ronald Flake resurrected the subject of telephone costs.
Flake had insisted JPs reduce the telephone budgets of county departments after the consulting firm Insight had said they could save the county $30,000 each year in phone costs.
After several department heads declined to contract with Insight, Flake had suggested forcing the savings by eliminating the funding in the budget, and even threatened to stall the budget until the savings were factored in.
Friday, Flake did not follow through on the threat, but said he intended to bring the issue up again during budget revision later in the year.
The climate of Friday's meeting soured during discussion of an ordinance to establish pay ranges for county employees.
JP Lamont Richie, who sponsored the measure, said it was needed to comply with JPs' constitutional mandate to "set the number and compensation" of workers.
The last ordinance to do this had been passed in 2008 and expired at the end of 2011, leaving the county out of compliance with the law, Richie said.
Discussion grew heated when Lonnie Clark, treasurer for the Carroll County Airport Commission, questioned the effect of the ordinance on the airport manager.
Clark noted the maximum salary for the position, as proposed in the ordinance, was actually less than was now being paid.
In defense, Richie said he had only extended the pay ranges established in 2008 -- That is, if the manager's salary had been increased since then, it had been done without proper approval.
Clark responded that the Quorum Court had been aware of the higher salary for years and approved it in every county budget, up to and including the 2013 budget -- passed minutes before.
At Mumaugh's request, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser weighed in, noting that the proposed ordinance would be in direct conflict with the 2013 ordinance.
"Your ranges need to reflect your budget," she said "... You've got to either change the salary or the range."
Flake grew frustrated.
"We're just trying to establish the ranges as they currently exist," he said. "The fact that some are paid outside of the ranges is just a reflection of the fact that we haven't done our job in the past. We don't do our job of supervising salaries and supervising the number of employees.
"We are finally making some effort to do it," he continued, "and we're meeting major resistance from all sides."
Flake said the ordinance could always be amended later to update the ranges, once that issue had been discussed.
However, JP Larry Swofford questioned the usefulness of passing the ordinance if it was just going to be amended at a later date.
"We already know which way we're gonna go on this," Swofford said. "We're not gonna bring these employees' pay back down because we already passed a budget -- 10 minutes ago -- that sets their salaries."
The conversation then drifted to the tangential subject of whether the airport manager should be considered a county employee -- a question that has led to controversy between JPs and airport commissioners in recent weeks.
JP Don McNeely then led the discussion even further afield by bringing up the long-contested salary study, before Flake, in exasperation, asked Judge Sam Barr to "just call the question."
JPs ultimately passed the ordinance 8-1, with Swofford casting the lone dissenting vote.
Also Friday, JPs considered two ordinances dealing with the last pay period of 2012 -- overlooked during last year's budget process.
The first -- appropriating $166,976 in pay to hourly employees -- passed easily. However, the second -- which would have appropriated an additional $13,895 to pay elected officials-- was defeated unanimously.
JPs had considered the issue last month but tabled it after Flake pointed out the ordinance proposed then included elected officials, as well as hourly employees.
JPs are required to set the salaries of elected officials within a range prescribed by state law. Though they can increase officials' pay within that range, any decrease must be approved by voters.
"I believe that this could be construed as a pay raise for the elected officials," Flake said Friday. "If we give them a pay raise, we can't rescind it until after the next general election, so if we pass this, we are committing ourselves to pay this next year and the year after. I am opposed. I don't think we can do that."
Speaking at the end of the meeting, Grudek said he was disappointed by the lack or support.
"I'm very fortunate," he said. "I have a really nice retirement, so I can possibly make it through a paycheck. ... but I have a lot of people who work for me who, every two weeks, depend on that paycheck, and I'm sure there are other elected officials that fall into that same category."
He noted that officials in Carroll County are paid less than their counterparts throughout the state, adding,
"I'm disappointed that there was more discussion about the salary of the airport manager than there was about the salaries of our elected officials."
During the JP comment period at the end of the meeting, McNeely suggested moving Quorum Court meetings from their current time of 10 a.m. to the evening -- to encourage public attendance and ease the burden on JPs who have to work during the week.
"I killed a buzzard the other day driving to work real fast," he said.
Several JPs voiced support for the idea -- though Mumaugh noted that moving the meeting time would make it less convenient for elected officials to attend.
"I would ask us, when we come to that vote, to take their schedules, their families into consideration," he said.
Looking to the year ahead, Flake told fellow JPs he had been researching the law and determined that JPs had the authority to establish "committees of the whole" on various subjects.
"This would let us have whatever participation the JPs want in committees," Flake said, "so we can have more participation, which might make it easier to get some things through at the regular meetings."
He said he was "seriously considering" proposing an ordinance to establish several such committees at the Court's Jan. 4 organizational meeting -- to be held at 10 a.m. in the County Courthouse, in Berryville.
Establishing -- and dissolving -- committees is currently the purview of the county judge. After Flake's statements Friday, Barr asked him to quote the statute that granted JPs the authority to establish committees.
Flake said he didn't know it offhand.
"Later then?" Barr asked.
"Sure," Flake responded.
In other business, JPs:
* Declined an ordinance to appropriate $2,321.77 in additional funds not approved in the 2012 budget. JPs said the ordinance was unnecessary and that departments should be able to cover the expenses within existing budgets.
* Appropriated $12,527 for an audit of federal funds received by the county, not included in the 2012 budget.
* Confirmed the appointment of Larkin Edward Thompson and James Simmons to three-year terms on the Inspiration Point Rural Fire Protection District Board of Commissioners.
* Received an update on Barr's Dec. 13 visit to Little Rock to address audit violations -- including, among other things, failure to complete an inventory of county assets. The judge told JPs the visit had gone well and that officials with the Division of Legislative Audit had been pleased with the recently completed inventory, which he presented to them.
* Heard that Barr had wrecked his county vehicle two weeks before. Barr told JPs the insurance adjustor was calling the wreck a "total loss," and that he planned to settle.
* Bid farewell to JP Chris Graham. Friday was Graham's last meeting.