By Sean Rice
All Mercer County government departments need to help cut $600,000 from this year's county operating budget, commissioners told a group of elected officials this morning.
If that goal is not reached, a more drastic "plan b" will be created, which most likely will include increased sales tax and title transfer fees and reductions in staff.
In a memo to elected officials, Mercer County Commissioners said Auditor Mark Giesige's projections of a budget deficit beginning in 2005 will come true. The memo states appropriations will need to be reduced by nearly 7 percent overall to meet this year's budgeted expenses.
"We don't have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem," Giesige told officials this morning. "But it is going to need to be addressed through our spending."
The auditor explained how the county has lost more than $1 million in revenue since 2001, when the county budget had a $1.8 million carryover. Double-digit health and liability insurance increases, combined with a freeze on local government assistance funds and plummeting interest income has put the county in a bind. All county operating funds are in interest bearing accounts until they are spent. In 2001, the county earned $800,000 from interest on invested funds. In 2002 that income fell to $500,000 and fell to $300,000 in 2003.
"The tough times are here, and now we have to make the tough decisions," Giesige said.
Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Andy Hinders told the group that commissioners need to cut all discretionary funding from the budget before any statutory offices can be forced to reduce operations. Statutory offices are required by law, such as sheriff, courts, clerk, auditor and recorder. Discretionary spending includes parks, the airport, soil and water conservation, 4-H and Ohio State University extension service.
Commissioner Jerry Laffin said the total savings that could be earned by eliminating funding to the discretionary accounts would total near $350,000. That would result in layoffs and unforeseen unemployment payment expenses that would cut into the savings.
"We haven't even addressed the local government funds. This thing could get a whole lot worst a heck of a lot faster if they are cut," Commissioner Jim Zehringer said. "To leave here thinking all employees are secure is wrong."
The group of officials on-hand represented the county prosecutor, auditor, recorder, treasurer, sheriff, clerk of courts and probate and common pleas court. One-by-one officials discussed cuts made and possible reductions. Most said budgets already are bare-bones and further cuts would be tough.
"I'll do everything I can, but for me to make substantial savings that means people," said Sheriff Jeff Grey, who heads the county's single biggest department.
Grey said to save 7 percent in his department this year would require the layoff of 21 employees.
"What you need to consider is: Is it more important to teach that kid to fish or is it more important to get that drug dealer off the street?" Grey said of the balance between discretionary and statuary spending.
The group was instructed to send the commissioners a list of what cuts each department can make voluntarily and another meeting will be set for next month to further discuss cuts.