At the end of a five-hour Dec. 4 meeting, the Budget Committee of the Van Buren County Quorum Court was able to lock down its 2019 budget. The meeting was the last of several meetings taking place over the past two months as the committee reconciled department needs against county revenue projections.

The 2019 projections at the start of the evening meeting showed the county with $5,526,763 budget requests against $5,283,780 in revenues, a $243,013 deficit. State law mandates that a county may not budget over 90 percent of its projected revenue, so “deficit spending,” a term used, at times, in planning budgets elsewhere was not an available option.

The budget committee for this year, as previous, was formed under JP Dale James. James, who will begin his term of county judge on Jan. 1, stated to the committee that JP Brian Tatum would take over as Budget Committee head effective the Tuesday night meeting.

Tuesday night, Dec. 4, was the final planned budget meeting before the Quorum Court end-of-year meeting Dec. 20, when a vote on accepting the budget is expected to be on the agenda.

As James presented the budget outline to the committee he explained, in a term that would be repeated throughout the evening, that he did not want to get “into the weeds” on budgeting. That is the only items on the board under discussion were the items directly funded via the county’s general fund, not self-funded offices with assured funding.

At issue were two types or organizations: Those which receive money from the county as contributions to operations, and organizations funded directly from the county general fund.

Of the former group, those receiving contributions, some had funding eliminated entirely, and those remaining received a 10 percent cut for 2019.

The cut was originally proposed at five percent, but this was raised to 10 percent, as proposed by JP Brian Tatum late in the proceedings and agreed upon by the committee, in light of the deficit.

The Senior Citizens Centers had a number of supporters on hand in the gallery as the meeting began, concerned about any funding cut from the $74,000 amount funded for 2018, for centers in Clinton, Fairfield Bay, Shirley and Damascus. Pamela Draeger, representing the group, presented to the committee that she was concerned that any cut from the center’s budget, $98,000 in total for 2018, would impact the centers ability to provide meals for seniors.

Later in the evening as the decision was made that the group would be one of the ones suffering cuts, committee member JP Mary Philips pointed out that by the figures the group presented, it was under-funded in its commitment by the cities of Clinton and Fairfield Bay. If those groups covered their underfunding to the centers in those communities, it would bring the centers back to the $74,000 after the 10 percent cut.

One other group in the contribution group was the Historical Society, which had its $5,130 contribution struck. As a representative presented to the group she told them of a $16,000 Certificate of Deposit (CD) the organization held. In light of this and against the deficit funding was not appropriate, James said.

Savings in this group as the Van Buren County Fire Chiefs Association, which turned back its $2,200 funding from 2018, and especially noteworthy was the Van Buren County Special School turning back its $20,000 contribution from 2018.

A total of $32,604 was struck from the contributions budget from 2019, after the 10 percent cut along with the turn-backs from the two organizations and striking funding for the third.

The department funding represented larger numbers for committee consideration.

Part of this was a re-structuring, with the County Clerk’s office absorbing the Election Coordinator’s office. James had pointed out at an earlier meeting how with no general election this year, the county would not have to budget $80,000 for elections (a figure which was not included in the Tuesday night calculations).

County Safety and Maintenance also came in lower, as two people were leaving that department. Also in discussion was the funding for Judge Foster’s Enhanced Docket Court, a hybrid of the Drug Court concept, at $49,460. Continued funding of this was upheld by the committee.

The most charged discussion of the evening was also about the largest line-items on the budget: The Sheriff’s Department and the Detention Center Budget.

Of the department budgets not “in the weeds,” per James, the Detention Center, a $1,048,054 and the Sheriff’s Department, at $1,341,762, a total of $2,389,816, made up the majority of the county’s $3,882,137 department budget column.

Sheriff-elect Lucas Emberton, who will assume office Jan. 1, presented his department’s budget to the committee, a continuation of a presentation made at an earlier meeting. Emberton had proposed a budget which allowed for a five percent raise for deputies while cutting expenses on multiple line-items such as supplies and computer software. The pay raise was justified, he explained to the committee, in that the county was lagging behind other departments in pay scale, and as such was at risk of losing deputies to better-paying jobs once they were trained.

The five percent raise was in lieu of the monies requested to hire additional deputies, proposed in the initial sheriff’s budget by outgoing Sheriff Randy Gurley.

Additional savings in sheriff’s department budget for the coming year was vehicle cost as the department had moved to a different method of acquiring vehicles – first put into effect in 2017 by then Sheriff Scott Bradley and coming to fruition in this budget cycle.

Emberton also agreed with the committee that two initiatives to raise department revenue would be through the jail, by accepting additional federal inmates, and by raising its participation in Act 309 inmates – state inmates allowed to enter work-release. Both of these would total $85,500 in revenue, or an additional $82,630 in revenue against 2018 revenue from federal inmate housing.

As Emberton completed his budget presentation what followed led to one of the most impassioned moments of the evening, when JP Dale Holt asked Emberton if he would consider dropping two people from his department roster.

Multiple deputies on hand spoke up at this, several at once, decrying the danger they would be in without a backup officer available. This included one woman in the back standing up expressing that she did not want a late-night call about her husband being shot because there was not a second deputy available to assist.

Holt withdrew his request.

As the committee wrapped up, the final corner-cutting was the change to the county health insurance plan, moving from the existing PPO plan to a Health Advantage plan, which, James pointed out, continued to maintain the max $1,500 out-of-pocket cost for the insured.

Additional savings were found in other, smaller, areas, such as trimming in Internet fees and postage fees at the Circuit Clerk’s office, and again postage fees at the County Clerk’s office.