The county budget planning season for 2019 got underway this past Tuesday, Sept. 18, with the first meeting of the Van Buren County Budget Committee. The committee, made up of Quorum Court members and led by Justice Dale James, met to establish a framework for budget planning for the coming year.

Any Arkansas county budget, by state law, may not use deficit planning, and instead is required to be based on no more than 90 percent of projected revenues for the coming year. James pointed out to the group this mean a roughly $228,000 shortfall compared to the 2018 budget – although in comparison 2018’s budget was against an over $600,000 shortfall.

The shortfall came from $93,000 loss due to mineral rights devaluation, the expenses of what’s been labeled the “Fair Share” for 911, of $70,000 for the county, plus the $45,500 expense allocated to Clinton, along with a $100,000 increase in health insurance cost for the county.

In 2018 health insurance for the county went up 25 percent, which the county covered without increasing the cost to employees.

Two bright spots in the budget planning was there not being a general election in 2018, an $80,000 savings, and the reduced expense for sheriff’s vehicles.

County Treasurer Kim Hunley stated the sheriff’s vehicles offset could have a significant impact on the $228,000 expense, although final figures were not presented at the meeting. The county had gone to a lease arrangement on vehicle over two years ago, when then-Sheriff Scott Bradley proposed that doing so, while it would create a higher initial expense, would then significantly lower expenses after three years. The 2019 budget cycle marks the third year of the lease arrangement.

James also reminded the group that the budget impact was on the county general fund, with such budget items as the library and roads being assured funding due to millage. The assessor’s office was also, by its structure, assured funding based on collections. Solid Waste was also safe due to its being budget-neutral, James said.

The general fund, however, would impact offices such as the sheriff’s office during the 2019 planning, James said.

A second issue addressed at this meeting was the impact of the forthcoming election and hiring, raised by County Assessor Trina Jones. Jones explained to the body that a number of staff members in her officer were concerned for their jobs should when a news assessor is elected. She related one story of a nearby county when the entire staff was laid off after a new assessor took office.

Justice Dell Holt, joined by others, was adamant that the county was still under a hiring freeze, and that would not change regardless of who takes the office of assessor. (Jones is not running for reelection.)

“Whoever’s coming in needs to understand there’s a hiring freeze,” Hold said.

The committee also agreed to send out a letter to department heads asking for a budget for 2019. The letter states the expected shortfall, adding that any submitted budget must be at or below the 2018 budget in order to be accepted. Department heads were also advised to leave the “personal services” budget line-item blank.

The committee’s next meeting is in October, where department heads are expected to present their budgets for the coming year.