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01-21-06 County spending up by 14 percent

By Tim Cox

  Mercer County Commissioners approved a $9.1 million general fund budget appropriations' resolution this week that represents a 14 percent increase in spending over 2005.

  The county sheriff's office will get the largest overall increase in money while a couple of other county offices also will receive large percentage increases to meet funding demands.

  County Sheriff Jeff Grey had lobbied county commissioners for a 42 percent increase in his department's budget. The sheriff's office also controls the 911 Central Dispatch and jail budgets. All three offices' combined budget will total $2.35 million this year, an increase of more than $350,000. The overall increase is 18 percent for Grey's budget, with much of that designated for jail operations.

  "Both sides worked together to come to a reasonable and palatable compromise," Mercer County Commissioner Bob Nuding said. "The budget just couldn't absorb (42 percent increase) but we tried to work with them."

  Grey previously told commissioners he needed the extra money to increase the pay of his staff to bridge the gap between the current pay and what a wage study showed the staff should be earning. He also said he needs more money to house inmates at other jails, to add wireless connectivity to the department's cruisers and to update the cruiser fleet with six new cars.  The county probate court budget will increase 51.5 percent for a total of about $98,000. County officials are pumping more tax revenue into the court because they say some previous grant funding that supported court operations and programs have lapsed.

  Most other offices are getting a modest increase to cover wage increases and other rising costs. The county will spend nearly $1.5 million -- 13 percent more than in 2005 -- for insurance, including health coverage for county employees.

  Still, to make the approved budget work, the county might have to dip into its carry-over balance from last year. The $9.1 million in proposed spending is higher than the estimated $8.6 million in revenue the county auditor's office is projecting.

  A $1.7 million balance that is being carried forward from 2005 will be used to meet any shortfall between revenue and spending. Auditor Mark Giesige said revenue likely will exceed or come close to anticipated spending.

  "I always estimate revenue conservatively," Giesige said, noting that 2005 revenue was about $9 million, or $400,000 more than his estimate for this year.

  "I'm very pleased with the budget this year," Giesige said. "We're in the best shape we've been in for years."

  Nuding said the budget process was more difficult this year, even though financial prospects are brighter. The county is emerging from several years of budget freezes and reductions. The $1.6 million remaining cash balance from 2005 is evidence the county's fiscal health is improving, he said.

  "This was a lot tougher than last year. Last year it was cut, cut, cut," Nuding said. "This year we have a little more to work with; but then everybody presents wish lists. It presents us with some difficult decisions to make."

  The 2006 general fund budget is about the same as the $9 million appropriated a couple of years ago before cuts were implemented.

  The county's total budget, which includes scores of programs, debt payments and other spending, tops $45 million. That revenue comes from grants, fee collections, special property tax assessments and other sources.


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