By Sean Rice
For the first time in several years, Mercer County leaders approved a general fund budget that is substantially lower than preceding years.
Mercer County Commissioners on Thursday appropriated exactly $8 million to the general fund, part of the $37.28 million total budget for 2005.
In 2004, the general fund budget was set at $8,785,623, which equates to a nine percent decrease this year. The total budget last year for all funds was $38.02 million.
Commissioners set funding amounts in the general fund based on income estimates from Mercer County Auditor Mark Giesige. The remaining budget entails "outside" funds, which are earmarked for specific purposes and cannot be mingled with the general fund or other funds.
Giesige and Commissioners Jerry Laffin and Jim Zehringer praised county department heads Thursday for working on reducing the budget by a target 10 percent. "They did a great job cutting back, to the point where we didn't have to continue going back asking for more," Laffin said. "They made it all a heck of a lot shorter for all of us."
"This appropriation process could never have come to such a productive end without the total cooperation and teamwork of other elected officials and their staffs," Giesige said. "County employees over the years have gone without pay raises, have faced increased insurance costs and have shouldered increased workloads with the same or lower staffing."
County leaders have been working with department heads all year to bring the total general fund down by 10 percent. For three years the general fund's carry-over balance dwindled to $641,000 from $1.8 million. Giesige said the general fund needs a carry-over balance as "safety net" for the county.
The auditor said his target carry-over balance is $1.2 million, or about 15 percent of the general fund budget. That amount is enough to run the county for less than two months.
"We need to continue to be cautious, because we still have a dark cloud on the horizon with possible cuts to our local government money that comes from the state," Giesige said.
"That would be our worst nightmare," Zehringer said of the general fund losing the nearly $900,000 from local government money the county keeps.
In 2003, Giesige predicted the carry-over balance would be zero by 2005 if steps were not taken to reduce the budget. In mid-2004, commissioners and Giesige asked department heads to reduce their already approved budgets by seven percent, to hedge off that prediction.
That reduction, coupled with a $208,000 increase in sales tax income, helped keep expenses down for 2004 and retain the carry-over.
The general fund includes the budget of the commissioners, auditor, treasurer, recorder, tax mapping office, sheriff, jail, elections board, prosecuting attorney, courts and others. Commissioners have direct authority over the fund amounts in the general fund.
The county's outside funds include the budgets of agencies that commissioners do not directly control, including Mercer County Solid Waste, Tri-County Mental Health Board, Mercer County-Celina City Health Department, Soil and Water Conservation, Job and Family Services, Cheryl Ann Programs, MR/DD., Workforce Investment Act, Mercer County Sanitary and Engineering departments. Many of the funding levels of the outside funds are fixed by the state.