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County budget approval hits impasse
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The Liberty County fiscal year 2024 budget is in limbo, after two votes on its future hit stalemates Tuesday night.

Commissioners deadlocked 3-3 on passing the $57.7 million budget as it was presented by county staff. Commissioners Connie Thrift and Marion Stevens, along with Chairman Donald Lovette, voted in favor of it. Commissioners Gary Gilliard, Maxie Jones and Eddie Walden voted against it.

Walden later offered a motion to extend this year’s budget, which expires June 30, for the coming fiscal year until the commissioners are presented with the property tax digest and can approve a millage, which likely won’t happen until September. He also offered using fund balance to continue county operations.

But after a second from Commissioner Gilliard, that motion too ended in a 3-3 vote.

“This is the first time it’s ever been done,” County Administrator Joey Brown said of the budget impasse.

Commissioner Justin Frasier was not present at the meeting, leaving the board with six voting members.

Brown said an unexpected and severe hike in property and casualty insurance, which went up by $1.5 million, helped push the budget to its record figure. The county also has taken over EMS and has committed to staffing a full-time fire department, resulting in more personnel.

Raises in pay and benefits for county employees, a result of a salary study, also factored into the budget. The total of new employees and pay raises for county employees is nearly $3.5 million. Purchased services also have gone from $8.7 million to $11.8 million, a 35% jump.

Finance director Samantha Richardson said commissioners have made an effort to attract and retain employees.

“This brings full-time employees up to market value,” she said. “The job market is very competitive these days.”

“We’re hoping this will help us to maintain employees,” Commissioner Stevens said. “We know it’s not easy. We hope that they will stay.”

Also, health insurance has gone up 8% over the last year.

Original budget requests came in at over $65 million before it the final proposed budget was presented to commissioners.

But Gilliard said he couldn’t support the current 16% increase in the proposed FY24 budget from the FY23 budget of $49.6 million.

“It got hard for me to look at the second page (of the budget presentation) and say, ‘that’s OK,’” he said. “It’s hard to swallow. It’s difficult for me.”

Brown also pointed out the county hired new firefighters at the mid-point of the current budget year and the FY24 budget includes those firefighters for the entire year.

The county’s fiscal year begins July 1 and Brown issued a worry that without adopting a budget, some departments may not be able to pay bills and the county could default on some contracts.

“I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

Other county costs, such as gas and electricity, have gone up since the FY23 budget was adopted last year, Brown noted.

How to pay for the increased budget also weighed on commissioners.

“It is crystal clear – taxes are going up,” Walden said. “I am not for it.”

Walden added he is in support of the higher salaries and benefits for current county employees.

Property assessments are being sent out to land owners now, and the digest is still a couple of months away from being complete. The millage rate will be set after the digest is finished.

“I’m hoping we do not have to increase the millage,” Commissioner Thrift said.

Brown also cautioned commissioners against using fund balance to offset spending. The use of fund balance could leave the county without enough during the “dry months,” when property taxes aren’t coming in and the county often has just enough to maintain the recommended minimum of three months of fund balance.

Fund balance, Brown pointed out, is more akin to a cash flow account and not a savings account.

“Using fund balance is dangerous to pay for recurring expenses,” he said.

Brown told commissioners they could consider renewing the FY23 budget but they would have to take into account the higher insurance rates and the agreements reached with the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office, costs which are shared with the other five counties in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. Doing so also would prevent the commissioners from cutting the budget of constitutional officers.

Richardson said once the digest is presented, the county could find areas, aside from the constitutional offices, in the budget to cut.

“We’ve been cautious to make sure we get a complete picture of what our revenues are going to look like,” she said.

Lovette said he was worried that not passing a budget sends the wrong message, especially after the commissioners committed to staffing a full-time fire department.

“Raising taxes sends a message too,” Commissioner Gilliard said.

Brown asked commissioners for guidance for the staff in what to do next. But Lovette said he didn’t see a resolution.

“I don’t want to cripple the county,” the chairman said.

Commissioners have called for a special meeting on the budget adoption for June 29 at noon.

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