MOUNT VERNON — Fireworks flew at Monday’s monthly county budget meeting. Challenged to start examining their 2010 departmental budgets for cuts without executive guidance from the commissioners, several department heads joined together to form what initially appeared a unified front.
Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher served as spokesman for the group, comprised of the heads of the following departments: Treasurer, auditor, map department (the only part of the engineer’s department subject to general fund cuts), clerk of courts, juvenile court, juvenile court probation, common pleas court, public defender and prosecutor.
Thatcher distributed copies of a memo stating that in order to meet the target reduction of 11 percent for the 2010 budget, these departments would all be closed on Fridays beginning Jan. 1 and would be implementing a “Cost Savings Day” policy allowing up to 160 hours of furlough time next year. The memo also said hours may be restricted to a 32-hour work week running from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that county offices may lay off or eliminate positions as needed. Thatcher said the group would like to hold budget review sessions with the commissioners, in special session if necessary, to complete a review of the forthcoming budget by Oct. 15.
“I find this very disappointing,” Allen Stockberger said of the group’s position.
He said the group was taking a position that would be punitive to the public and would create an unnecessary atmosphere of paranoia among county employees. He said that it appeared before this banding together, certain departments would have been able to make the adjustments necessary for the budget. Now, he said, that progress is being withdrawn into a combative stance.
Common Pleas Judge Otho Eyster countered by saying since the commissioners had declined to micro-manage the planned budget cuts, they shouldn’t complain about what solutions the officials reached. Juvenile Judge James Ronk said perhaps the commissioners would better perceive the department heads’ point of view after reviewing budgets line item by line item. Commissioners Stockberger and Teresa Bemiller said this is what the plan had always been, to have year-end budget hearings. Ronk said the budget reviews were needed now, not at the end of the year, so county employees will know what their future fates will be.
Eyster took issue with Stockberger’s use of the word “punitive” to describe their planned measures.
“I’m not trying to punish anyone,” Eyster said, pointing out that he is trying to save what employees he can, because his court still has the same number of employees it had a decade ago, even though the docket has doubled.
Thatcher said all of the county offices were so interrelated, the cuts needed to be coordinated, instead of being determined by the individual departments. The commissioners said this would be accomplished by the planned budget hearings at the end of the year. Thatcher said it would be pulling the rug out from under employees to wait that long; Stockberger said there would be better, more final budget numbers if they did. Auditor Jonette Curry said that since cuts and detailed budget reviews had already been made earlier in the year, this year was different, and that they should proceed.
Commissioner Robert Wise said going ahead with budget hearings now would not allow the commissioners to get a clear picture of what carryover funds would be available to start 2010. Thatcher suggested doing a temporary appropriation for the first quarter and not doing a final appropriation for the year’s budget until March 2010.
Ronk, describing the current crisis as unique in his 30 years in county government, suggested holding budget hearings now and at the end of the year.
Stockberger said the commissioners would be glad to learn more about each department’s budget, but that they wouldn’t be able to learn as much as each department head already knows. Ronk said the problem, however, was that he himself didn’t know much about other departments’ budgets, therefore the commissioners needed to tell them which departments should get a share of a limited pot.
“We need hard suggestions for hard times,” Ronk said.
Without committing to earlier budget hearings, the commissioners said they would discuss the issues presented and advise shortly. One challenge to the situation is that Wise will be out of state for the next 10 days.
After the meeting, County Recorder John Lybarger contacted the Mount Vernon News. His department was listed on Thatcher’s memo, but Lybarger said he did not agree with the memo and was never asked to give approval for his department to be listed in association with those statements.
Lybarger said the commissioners have continuously offered to confer with any and all department heads about the 2010 budget, and said the memo made him “furious.”