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Washington County JPs mull groundwork for $68 million budget

FAYETTEVILLE -- If the Washington County Quorum Court approves all of the 2018 budget requests, reserve will drop $2 million in the general fund, according to records presented Tuesday at the Finance and Budget Committee meeting.

"I was hoping for some kind of magical solution to the budget that did not happen," said Eva Madison, a Democrat representing northeastern Fayetteville and the committee chairwoman. "There is no magic solution."

Preview the county’s 2018 budget here.

Notable Requests

Many departments are making requests, including the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and jail, Assessor’s Office, Juvenile Court, Circuit Clerk, Election Commission, Collector’s Office, Veteran’s Services Office and Road Department. Not all of the requests directly affect the general fund.

Source: Washington County Finance and Budget Committee

Madison has been meeting with elected officials over budget concerns for about two months, she said. The full committee met Tuesday to preview budget requests and revenue and to organize. The meeting was meant as a preview, Madison said.

No decision was made Tuesday.

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The county is outspending revenue across the board -- in general, insurance, road and jail funds, records show. That doesn't include carryover money.

The county is expected to spend $66 million this year but revenue is at $62 million. Next year's budget is at $68 million in expenditures. If approved, the gap between spending requests and projected revenue for 2018 would widen to $5.5 million from $4 million, records show.

However, carryover money, or money left unspent at the end of the year, will cushion the county, said Justice of the Peace Bill Ussery, a Republican representing northeastern Springdale. If carryover money is included in projections, then the county has money to cover its 2018 budget, records show.

Carryover is expected to be about $25 million, a Treasurer's Office report shows.

Still, the budget expenditures don't include plans for employee pay raises. It also doesn't address how much reserve the county should have in place for emergencies.

The county has $6.4 million in reserve, according to records presented Tuesday.

Madison said the county cannot keep spending its reserve like it has been. Tax revenue is expected to decline after the next U.S. Census, when the county will receive less money from a one-cent sales tax. That's an annual loss of $1.5 million beginning in 2021.

"We've got work to do to narrow that (revenue and spending) gap because it's not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination," Ussery agreed.

The gap hasn't shrunk despite a projected $600,000 increase in tax revenue and despite cuts 17 departments made to budgets, records show. Departments cutting budgets include buildings and grounds, county attorney and county clerk, according to Comptroller Ashley Farber. The Sheriff's Office, which seeks an overall budget increase, also cut expenditures to hold down cost requests, Madison said.

Some problems have been a surprise, Ussery said.

The Washington County Detention Center has had a spike in the number of inmates who haven't yet been convicted of any crime, Madison said. The number of people being arrested is up, too, meaning more costs on the jail, she said.

The jail pays for felony cases before adjudication, Madison said. The Prosecutor's Office expects to handle about 1,500 more felony cases this year than in 2013, she said. The speed of adjudication is hurting the county's budget, she said.

On top of that, justices of the peace must consider where to set reserve, whether to make cuts, whether to increase the millage rate, whether to give pay raises to employees and whether to readjust how a one-cent sales tax is split with the Road Department, Madison said.

"We have our work cut out for us," she said.

NW News on 09/13/2017

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