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County faces budget crisis

Most of the department heads for Butler County appeared at the monthly County Commission meeting Monday with one theme, &uot;More money.&uot;

Now, the commissioners face developing the county’s budget for Fiscal Year 2003-04 with mostly flat tax revenues and little future increase.

Sheriff Diane Harris made the biggest request for the coming year. She said her department is in dire straits, with money needed to recruit sufficient numbers of deputies and replace overworked department vehicles.

&uot;I’m asking for an increase of $287,998 in the sheriff’s department budget, bringing the budget from $506,940 to $794,930,&uot; Harris said.

&uot;That’s asking for a 25 percent salary increase for my deputies, 25 percent increase in benefits and overtime pay, and a 25 percent increase for other salaries and wages.&uot;

The sheriff’s other big line item was a request for $125,000 for new vehicles. She wants to replace a fleet she called dangerous for her deputies to drive.

Harris said all but two of the county’s current fleet top 100,000 miles each, and a couple exceed 140,000 miles.

&uot;Another biggie increase is repairs to motor vehicles,&uot; she said. &uot;I’m asking for an increase from $8,000 to $16,100 because with the cars I’ve got now, they are in the shop every other day.&uot;

The sheriff’s budget request also included increases in medical and dental expenses for inmates from $45,000 to $87,000, and in fuel and lubricants expenses, from $20,000 in 2003 to $22,000 for the next fiscal year due to the increase in fuel prices.

Across the board, the sheriff’s proposed 2003-04 budget included increases in every category.

The sheriff also expressed concern about the continued use of the current jail, and requested that construction of the new jail be started immediately.

&uot;There are a lot of things going on [at the jail] that I don’t want to talk about in an open meeting,&uot; she said. &uot;But [Commissioner] Robinson is aware of the situation, and we need to look at moving out of that jail. If not, I’m going to have to stop keeping people in the jail for safety of my employees and the inmates. We’ve been in law suits, and I’m afraid that one of the biggest ones is coming if something isn’t done.&uot;

Commissioner Frank Hickman asked Harris what services she suggested the commission eliminate in order to find the funds she was requesting.

Harris told the commission that she didn’t know, but her deputies were underpaid and she was having trouble recruiting because of the wages that were offered to new deputies.

&uot;Because I’m two people short right now, my overtime budget is gone because my deputies are having to work so much overtime,&uot; she said. &uot;I can’t get anyone to come to work for the sheriff’s department working for $8.50 to start, and the jail is out of money for the year right now because of the amount we’re spending on medical expenses for inmates.&uot;

Hickman said he and the mayor were looking at an option for the jail that would take care of the medical expenses. He also asked the sheriff to meet with them to explore ways to control that cost and eliminate abuse of the service by the inmates.

&uot;I think we need to establish a standard by which medical will be requested other than that of an inmate simply requesting it,&uot; he said. &uot;I think we need a greater line of demarcation by which to judge whether or not paramedics are called.&uot;

Other departments are also asking for budget increases.

Probate Judge Steve Norman is implementing a new tag renewal system in his office in January and needs office renovations to accommodate the system.

He has asked the commission for an increase of $46,046; the majority of that amount is for a computer upgrade and the office renovations.

&uot;I did ask for a $500 increase for postage,&uot; he said. &uot;I think that’s in line with what you will be seeing this year.&uot;

Belle Peavy went before the commission to request a $21,853.85 increase for the Tax Collector’s budget. Her budget last year was $138,386; this year’s request was $160,239.85. Her increase request includes a 5 percent pay increase for her office personnel.

Carolyn Middleton’s Tax Assessor’s office budget request was for $165,719, an increase of $6,907 over last year’s budget of $158,812.

Another hefty budget increase came from the road department. County Engineer Dennis McCall said his office would need a budget of $5,797,100 for the upcoming fiscal year. He reported the department should receive $2,291,100 from projected gasoline fund revenues and $981,000 from RRR (Road, Resurfacing and Repair) revenues.

His last year’s budget was $5.5 million. His total requested budget increase is approximately $300,000.

The overall concern for the commissioners was how to justify and fulfill these requests when the county’s revenues are not increasing.

&uot;I don’t disagree that the needs presented are legitimate,&uot; Hickman said. &uot;But our responsibility as a commission is to see to the needs of the county as a whole. We don’t see how we can accommodate these increases without cutting services to the citizens of the county.&uot;