Familiar year-end conversations are underway as Van Buren County works to create its budget for the coming year.

Per Arkansas state law, a county may only budget at 90 percent of its projected revenues for the coming year. If the county budget needs are higher than projected revenue, strain results in coming to the final budget allocations. At the end of 2017 as it planned its 2018 budget, the county had a $600,000 budget shortfall - that is $600,000 more in projected expenses than revenue early in the budget planning process. This year the figure, as of the most recent planning session, is slight lower, with a $500,000 shortfall projected.

As the previous year, county shortfalls can be shown in two main areas: Increase in health insurance cost for county employees, and the lack of revenue from mineral leases. The latter remains at issue as Southwestern Energy (SWN) has filed a lawsuit in the county asking for a reduction in its taxed amounts. The lawsuit contends that the state-mandated numbers are too high, and do not properly reflect the current market for energy sales.

This year health insurance costs are projected – with no changes in coverage – to increase 27 percent for the county.

The county budget committee, headed by Justice Dale James, heard from insurance representatives at a recent of several meeting, where recommendations were made to either change the type of policy to county employees, or raise the deductible for county employees. At that meeting the committee was told that Van Buren County was one of the few which still maintained a $250 deductible.

Justices Dell Holt, Brian Tatum, Mary Philips are also on the committee.

An additional factor in contending with the 2019 budget is the new department heads taking office Jan. 1, including James who recent won the county judge election. (Post-election, James did not participate in county insurance discussion with committee members, as it would have a potential conflict of interest for him, he explained to committee members. James had, at the first meeting post-election, offered to resign for this same reason, which was rejected by the committee.)

Frustration about the range and scope of health care coverage, and its cost, was at topic in the most recent meeting. Committee member Tatum expressed frustration that the insurance cost, as a group policy, charged the same amount to someone who lived a healthy lifestyle as it did for someone less so.

As the committee discussed health insurance cost at its most recent meeting, OEM head Jeana Williams expressed frustration to the committee that the insurance costs proposed being passed on to employees would be a significant additional burden.

The budget committee, still in its planning stages, had not made a final decision on health insurance.

While department heads had presented budgets for the coming year to the committee by now, the November election changed some of this. Case in point would be incoming sheriff Lucas Emberton presenting to the committee at its most recent meeting, asking for some changes to the budget as had been presented earlier by Sheriff Randy Gurley.

Emberton specifically asked that Gurley’s request for additional personnel funding be changed so that, rather than adding personnel, he be able to give existing personal a pay raise. Emberton had additional budget refinements compared to Gurely’s earlier, including a change in janitorial supplies.

One saving for the 2019 year is the lowered expected cost for sheriff’s department patrol vehicles.

Incoming county treasurer Misty Wilson also presented that she would need to budget for an assistant, especially since she would be spending days out of the office on training in the coming year.

No specific response to these requests were made by James or other committee members.

The budget committee’s next meeting, Nov. 20 – as this issue is going to press – is expected to closely review personnel policy. Committee member Holt, and others, had expressed concern at earlier meetings about personnel cost against the current budget projections.

Finally, and something of a question mark at this time, is 911 Center funding for 2019. As covered previously, lowered revenue from phone lines – at one time enough to cover all 911 funding – has put budget pressure on the county and cities to contribute to 911 funding. Fairfield Bay, where the center is located, had proposed a “Fair Share” agreement between the county, the City of Clinton and the City of Fairfield Bay to cover costs not met by phone line allotments.

To date the City of Clinton has not agreed to participate in the Fair Share agreement. (Clinton has not formally produced its 2019 budget as of yet.)

While James, as the incoming county judge as well as current budget committee head, apparently has some plan for meeting this funding need, it has not been publically announced yet. He did state that the 911 Center and personnel would remain with Fairfield Bay.