Craighead County budget committee hears East/West courthouse debate

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 215 views 

The battle over funding the eastern and western district Craighead County courthouses continued Wednesday as justices received a letter from state legislative officials on the issue. The issue may end being dealt with through an Attorney General’s opinion and possibly new legislation.

The budgets for the Lake City office ($186,558.80) and the overall circuit clerk budget ($794,247.43) were presented to the committee, with both getting approval. Circuit Clerk Candace Edwards presented the committee a copy of the letter, listed in an email from Bureau of Legislative Research Kerrie Carlock, requested by Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro.

“I have researched this matter and also conferenced with AAC (Association of Arkansas Counties) per our conversation at JPR last week. Essentially there is a person working on behalf of the Craighead County Circuit Clerk in Lake City who is performing functions of the circuit clerk, the county assessor and the county tax collector. Against the backdrop of Act 667 of 2003, which authorizes the election of an advisory deputy circuit clerk for Lake City, you ask if the person working in Lake City is in a conflict of interest situation, and if so, can the conflict be resolved by paying the person pro rata for the functions carried out (i.e. 80% by clerk, 10% by assessor; 10% by collector),” Carlock said in the letter. “It appears that the person is acting in conflict of the law as the situation violate the common law prohibition on dual office holding. It does not appear that the conflict can be resolved by allocating the funds differently and paying the person on a pro rata basis from different funds.”

“This office in Lake City is simply a satellite office as Craighead County is not a county with a dual county seat. It is a county that has two districts for judicial purposes and has two courthouses, so it appears that the county clerk (and the county assessor and county collector) could have an employee staffing the Lake City office (and the county assessor and county collector could each do the same. It may be advisable to have the employees deputized by the respective official.”

Carlock suggested the county request an attorney general’s opinion, which does not carry the impact of law but can guide officials on policy issues.

The issue has been discussed in the county on and off for nearly a century, with the issue being brought up in courthouses and in the legislature. While both an Eastern District Sheriff and Eastern District Clerk are elected posts, the posts are under the supervision of the sheriff and circuit clerk.

The meeting Wednesday was the second in a series to review the 2016 county budget. The $29.99 million proposed budget is divided about evenly between operations of county offices as well as automation funding for equipment. Stacks said the county would likely see a $109,000 drop in general funding due to new state law next year.

The law, Act 741 of 2015, puts commissaries at the county jail under the auspices of the sheriff’s department, with the money going from the general fund to the treasurer’s office for use by the sheriff’s department. Overall, the sheriff’s department is requesting $3,476,705.82 next year (up $33,758.61 over 2015) while the jail budget is $4,604,940.98 (down $19,499.25 from 2015).

Treasurer Terry McNatt spoke to the committee about his budget. McNatt is requesting $163,270.72 for 2016, up $4,500 from the 2015 figures.

McNatt said he is also requesting small increases in office supplies and to replace a copier “on its last legs.” McNatt said his office has looked for ways to find savings in operating the office.

“When I was a kid, I was taught if you watch the small money, the big money takes care of itself,” McNatt said.

County Clerk Kade Holliday spoke about his budget. The overall amount in the proposed budget – $439,554.61 – in 2015 includes several key issues. Holliday said he wants to redo the salary schedule in his office as well as having the option of buying the comp time of employees versus having to pay for accrued time for employees in his office. The option is key for his office, which also deals with voting and elections in the county, Holliday said. In his proposed budget, Holliday also wants to offer raises to employees in his office.

County Election Commission chairman Jeanette Robertson also gave an overview of the commission’s $465,418.50 2016 budget. Robertson said the commission is working on a plan to update technology at the election annex on Jefferson Avenue. The building, without an Internet connection, is being retrofitted to be more technology ready. Robertson said the county will use technology like iCloud and Google calendar to build databases needed for elections.

Stacks asked Robertson about how much of the budget can be reimbursable. Robertson said she expects at least $100,000 of the budget will be reimbursable by the county. The state reimburses for statewide special elections and primaries, while the county is responsible for general elections, Robertson said.

Also, cities and school districts are responsible for the costs of their own elections. In addition to the primary and general election, there will be a school election and runoff in September not to mention a general election runoff Nov. 22. The county will have at least two special elections next year – a school millage vote at Buffalo Island Central in January and a possible vote on the Jonesboro Property Maintenance Code March 1, officials have said.

The committee will meet again on Nov. 23 at 4:30 pm and take a look at the revenue side, Stacks said.