MOUNT VERNON — Elected county officials met with the Knox County Board of Commissioners on Monday to express frustration with the 9 percent budget reduction the commissioners requested by June 30.
County Clerk of Courts Mary Jo Hawkins called for the meeting, which was attended by Sheriff David Barber, Commissioner Teresa Bemiller, Auditor Jonette Curry, Common Pleas Judge Otho Eyster, Recorder John Lybarger, Public Defender Bruce Malek, Treasurer Sandra Mizer, Coroner Jennifer Ogle, Probate/Juvenile Court Judge James Ronk, Municipal Court Judge Paul Spurgeon, Commissioner Allen Stockberger, Prosecutor John Thatcher and Commissioner Robert Wise.
Eyster began by saying he had organized a previous meeting without the commissioners in hopes of getting everyone to be consistent in their approach to budget cutting. He said the common ground from that meeting was that all agreed that cutting employee hours was not a viable option. But, he said, what several departments are finding is that without cutting hours, they will have serious trouble coming up with the 9 percent reduction.
“Certainly, that’s not the answer we had hoped to get,” said Stockberger.
Thatcher distributed a handout showing that the prosecutor’s office could only cut 2.25 percent without getting into areas that would require clearance from a state auditor or cutting employees. He also pointed out that if the economy is currently slow in Knox County, it would not help things if employees or employee hours get cut back.
Stockberger said the commissioners’ attempt to treat everyone equally did not appear to be working, that they had hoped the department heads’ knowledge of their operations would be able to identify sufficient savings.
“If the money isn’t there, it’s foolhardy of us to proceed as though it was,” Stockberger said, saying that without these cuts, the county may run out of money.
“If we’re going to go to a four-day work week, you make the decision,” Eyster countered.
Stockberger said that perhaps in some cases, it would be possible to keep office hours, but cut employee hours.
“In my mind, the most important asset we have is our employees,” Ronk said.
Stockberger said it comes down to an overestimation of investment income in figures supplied to the commissioners by the auditor’s office for the 2009 budget. He described the estimation as a mistake which was not made by the commissioners, but one they have to deal with.
Eyster said his employees were given a 2 percent raise at the beginning of the year, and the impression was that everything was fine, then suddenly they have had only two weeks’ notice to try and make massive cuts.
“I’m not blaming the current auditor,” Stockberger said, adding that if the commissioners had known that investment income would be returning such low interest, they would never have approved any raises in the budget. The interest income is derived from the conservative investments which counties are allowed to make, Mizer pointed out, which does not include stocks.
Thatcher said if employees are the county’s most valuable asset, the only logical thing would be to take the reductions being submitted by 5 p.m. today and subtract that amount from the projected shortfall, which is $1.3 million. Then they would have to go through each department’s budget, item by item, to find more savings, and only cut hours or employees as a last resort.
“Our employees and the public need to know that we’re working hard to fix this,” Thatcher said.
Lybarger wondered if it would be possible to live “hand-to-mouth” for a few months and defer massive cuts until later in the year, instead of making cuts so severe they might actually further prohibit the county’s economy from recovering. Wise said he’d be afraid any deferment would push the crisis into next year.
“I don’t think things are going to get a hell of a lot better next year,” Ronk said. He asked if the county had any real estate it could sell. Stockberger said it probably did, but that would be a long-lasting decision with a very short-term benefit.
Barber said that without cutting employees’ hours, the most he could come up with was 3 percent. He was in favor of sitting down with the commissioners and reviewing the budget line-by-line, but not doing the review as a multi-departmental group activity. Barber said he meant no disrespect to other departments, but his department’s operations were so different, it would be comparing apples to oranges.
The only part of the budget crunch which offers a possibility of improvement any time soon, Stockberger said, is the monthly sales tax figures. To that end, Ogle said she hoped residents would make as many of their purchases locally as possible, to help keep the county economy going and forestall more painful cuts.
Departmental budget reductions are due to the commissioners today. The commissioners said they plan to compile the figures Wednesday and release a progress report Thursday.