By Pat Cooper
There may have been no changes to the county’s $76.3 million budget, leaving little to discuss, but that wasn’t stopping a former county commissioner from blasting the commission over its contents for the better part of an hour.
On Thursday night, county administrator Steve Rapson told the commission, that there would be no last minute changes to the overall budget and therefore no real presentation. Rapson had, in previous meetings and in a previous public hearing, already gone over chapter and verse of the FY 2014 budget, pointing out savings had been achieved by utilizing conservative projections based on “an objective, analytical process of detailed trending; one time revenues were not used to fund current expenditures, thus avoiding pursuing short-term benefits at the risk of creating future funding issues; only current revenues are used to pay current expenditures so there is no a built-in increase for ongoing expenditures, and there is a budgetary link between capital and operating budgets to identify and determine if ongoing expenses can be funded through the operating budget once the project is in service.” He also noted that 2014 expenditures were less than revenues coming in for the operating budget, the E-911, Fire and EMS funds.
Rapson had already noted that in previous years the budgets have had health care costs at roughly $4.2 million and the county was experiencing claims closer to $6 million. In the FY2014 budget the situation has been rectified. “This year, we actually have the health care budgeted for all the premiums,” telling commissioners that he believed the county had achieved fiscal accountability.
The commission also added a two percent of salary one time payment to county employees as an incentive to ‘do more with less.’
Another part of the cost-cutting measures involved the Fayette County Marshal’s office being slashed from 11 employees to only three. Six of the eight employees will be transferred to new positions with the county, with at least two becoming code enforcement officers, another an investigator and the balance pulling jobs in the county water system, resulting in a $471,289 savings.
The county’s defined benefit program didn’t close out but was modified to a point where the plan itself is reduced by a half million dollars a year.
The balanced budget, however did not make everyone happy. As he has at several past meetings, former county commissioner Lee Hearn wasn’t reticent about pointing out the flaws of the current budget, taking nearly 30 minutes to complete his statement. Hearn pointed out that as long as the commissioners wouldn’t be putting a time limit on speakers during the public hearing, he had “a lengthy” commentary.
Hearn once again said the county was facing a ‘fiscal cliff’ as a result of the FY2014 budget. He offered criticism on the fact that the county was trying to do away with the defined benefit pension plan that was put into place during his tenure.
“Without such a mechanism, the county was headed down a road where we could have a lot of 65 year old an older sheriff’s deputies and firefighters because they could not afford to retire. It was the opinion of such community public safety leaders such as Chief Allen McCullough and sheriff Wayne Hannah that these individuals could not physically meet the requirements of the jobs that the employees have to perform in a daily basis.”
Hearn pointed to a white paper study by Lewis Patterson, the county’s human resources director, which indicated the necessity and financial savings of providing public safety employees with an opportunity to retire at age 55. He added that now, as a result of the commission’s decisions on the budget, the county employees did not have that option, despite the fact that the plan was a collaborative effort.
“In fact, the vast majority of the funds in the Defined Benefit Pension Fund represent contributions made by the employees themselves, not the Fayette County taxpayers. From an actuarial point of view, all of the future pension benefits of our employees that represented past service at the time of the pension fund’s creation was covered by contributions made by our employees.
“When I left office at the end of last December, the pension fund had more assets than it needed to pay future benefits. In fact, the unfunded actuarial liability as of January 1 was a negative $3.3 million. A negative liability represents a positive balance and simply means that there is currently more assets in the bank than what is projected by the actuary than will be needed to pay future pension claims.”
He also took issue with the county’s Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) strategy, which was counter to an outside consultant’s recommendation that showed the county’s portion of that income would be 57.24 percent. He also asked why the recreation department budget included $114,000 to Peachtree City and $10,800 to Tyrone to pay for recreation services.
“The real question here is if the distribution of LOST revenues was fairly and equitably negotiated, why is there still a need to send those monies to the cities when our own county parks need numerous upgrades and repairs.”
Hearn also took a jab at the Stormwater Utility, saying that since chairman Steve Brown and commissioner Allen McCarty, who were on the board at the time of the creation of the service, and Randy Ognio, then just a private citizen, all opposed the stormwater utility, then why haven’t they voted to dismantle it instead of just changing the name. Additionally, why the ‘sudden flop’ on the issue, he asked.
“Not only is it included in next year’s budget, but it also includes funding for a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) to pay for additional stormwater infrastructure. It wasn’t long ago that Steve Brown was preaching the evils of SPLOSTS.”
Hearn also dragged in the subject of the $2.3 million it was recently determined was bond money from the 2000 issue that the county didn’t know it had.
“The covenants of the 2000 public facilities authority bond issue required than unspent proceeds had to be used to pay off the bonds. Since the original construction project has been completed long ago, the use of these newly discovered proceeds from 2004 to redeem the outstanding bonds would save the taxpayers about $3.7 million.
“It sure will be interesting to see what the bond counsel eventually says those monies can be used for. Just think, maybe $2.38 million that the board has already programmed for the CIP might not even be available to balance the budget after all.”
In rebuttal, Rapson pointed out that the defined benefit plan changes had no effect on public safety employees, but it did change things for future employees.
Rapson also addressed the budget the commission was currently reviewing.
“Fayette Country used $6 million dollars in FY2013 to balance its budget. When you use $6 million of fund balance – you have a problem. You can either raise property taxes or reduce spending. The current Board chose to make hard decisions, the same type of hard decisions our residents have been making for the past 5-6 years. We reduced spending. These reductions were a collaborative effort – made up of elected officials, constitutional officers, justice system and county management – we all came together.
“There’s no secret recipe. We sat in a board room, residents sit at their kitchen table, we made hard decisions. We did this in the open, very publically and with complete transparency.
“The changes put into place to the HR and Finance policies, retirement plan and medical plan impact all future years. Our focus is to do what is in the best interest of Fayette County using a three to four year outlook and focusing on implementing best practices. This approach makes making those hard decisions easier.
“The FY2014 budget is balanced, no use of fund balance, no property tax increase, no service delivery reductions – and a 2 percent one-time employee incentive salary adjustment.
“This is what my management team has accomplished in just over five months. We’re not yet done – but it’s a good start.“
Rapson wasn’t the only one standing up for the commission’s new budget. Lester Road resident and frequent speaker Frank Gardener said he’d been paying taxes for 45 years in the county and “couldn’t believe what I’m hearing.”
“These folks are trying to downgrade or commission. They stand up here and bash our commissioners, who are listening and trying to do what people asked them to do. Does anybody really believe these millions were stuck in some secret vault? If it had been, then somebody would blow the whistle on them. I had no intention of saying anything tonight, but I appreciate you listening to us.”