Issues with Sebastian County budget, software noted

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 93 views 

What was intended to be a study session on Sebastian County's finances Tuesday night (April 9) escalated to a discussion on not only finances, but also bringing the Ben Geren Aquatic Center up for a third and final vote during the Quorum Court's April 16 meeting and a discussion about software needs in the Sebastian County Treasurer's office.

The first and only item on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting was a review of the county's finances.

A review of the finances was requested at the previous Quorum Court meeting in March after Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper raised objections to the county possibly loaning money to the city of Fort Smith to pay for additional amenities at the aquatic center.

To comply with the Court's request, County Judge David Hudson presented the Court with an updated cash flow projection for the remainder of the year that included recommendations to reduce spending in order to maintain a $5.2 million starting balance in the county general fund at the beginning of next year.

The proposed cuts in spending, assuming no increases in expenses such as fuel and utilities or cost of living increases, keeps the county from running deficits, which were previously projected, through 2015.

Some of the proposed cuts in the county's budget include the following areas:
• Reducing "unobligated" general funds from $250,000 to $150,000, maintaining the $100,000 difference in the general fund balance;
• Reducing capital appropriations by $200,000, in coordination with elected county department heads;
• Changing the insurance budget policy to retain in the balance budgeted insurance premiums for vacant positions or for positions that refused insurance coverage, estimated to be approximately $137,500; and
• Offset revenues to cover the growth in personnel costs (not hiring for new positions without new monies in place to cover the additional costs).

Hudson admitted that without making some of the above-mentioned adjustments, along with adjustments to department budgets, the county would face financial problems.

"We need to make adjustments to the budget this year," he said. "The budget has grown. If you take a look at the area of growth that I guess is most concerning to me is the area of personnel. There's also been some operations growth."

He said growth areas have been primarily funded through two sources – property tax and sales tax. But he said the budget has gotten tougher to balance.

"The budget has progressively gotten tighter (since 2009)," he said.

A document provided to the Court and the media showed the amount of budget expended each year, starting in 2009 with 90% expended, 2010 with 84% expended, 2011 with 82% expended and 2012 with 92% expended. For 2013, the county's Director of Finance Cathy Lawrence said she had budgeted cash flow projections based on expending 94% of the $24.073 million 2013 amended budget.

JP Phil Hicks was not convinced the numbers presented in the meeting would be accurate, even if the county implements budget cuts.

"I think that means we need to see copies of bank statements and all that so we know exactly where (the budget currently stands)," Hicks said. "I'll be real honest, I don't know where we're at and I'm not the only one who doesn't know where we're at."

Hicks also asked that clearer reporting of the county's finances be made at each Quorum Court meeting.

JP Linda Murry, a former county treasurer, further proposed Hudson and possibly members of his office prepare and present PowerPoint presentations for the entire court at regular meetings to fully understand what was being presented to them in complicated financial documents.

It was a proposal Hicks and other members of the court welcomed and approved.

Following the presentation of the budget and proposed cuts, JP Danny Aldridge made a motion that $4 million in funding for Ben Geren Aquatic Center be voted on for a third and final reading at next week's regularly scheduled meeting.

Aldridge made his proposal, he said, after recently making a trip to new municipal water parks in both Clarksville and Rogers that he said incorporated design features friendly to all ages, while the proposed Ben Geren Aquatic Center tailors to a younger clientele. If approved, he proposed the park be redesigned with a broader range of amenities for all ages.

He also told his fellow JPs that by raising the entry fee to $8, like Alma's water park will do this summer, and paying lifeguards at the city of Fort Smith's current pay rate versus a feasibility study projection that was considerably higher, the park would be able to break even or possibly turn a profit.

JP John Spradlin openly challenged Aldridge's decision to bring the aquatic center back to the discussion during a meeting that was called due to concerns over the county's budget.

"For the first hour and 15 minutes of this meeting, we've been trying to figure out financial stuff and how to survive," he said. "But I'm confused here for an hour and 15 minutes talking about not doing capital expenditures, not hiring, blah, blah, blah and now we're back up here again."

Even with Spradlin's challenge, the Court voted 7-5 to put the third and final vote on the agenda for next week's meeting.

Following the vote on placing the item on next week's agenda, there was confusion after the Court's chairman, Ray Stewart, adjourned the meeting without taking public comment.

Once the meeting was again called to order, County Treasurer Judith Miller told the Court that software in her office was out of date for years but Hudson would not sign a contract for her to obtain up-to-date software.

She said she had worked with a software company to update software in her office, but to no avail.

"I'm sitting here 16 months later and I have nothing," she said.

Hudson said Tuesday's meeting was not the place to have a discussion regarding her software since members of the Court had not been provided documentation on the situation and since he and Miller had not met regarding her needs before coming before the Court on Tuesday.

A motion to discuss Miller's software needs was placed on next week's agenda.