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County budget climbs to $58 million
Salary bumps, insurance costs contribute to 17% increase
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A drastic hike in insurance costs, among other increases, have pushed Liberty County’s budget for the coming fiscal year to new heights.

County commissioners got an in-depth look at the fiscal year 2024 budget Tuesday night, a $58 million spending plan that is a 17% increase of the current fiscal year’s budget.

Original requests from department heads came in at just under $65.2 million.

“It’s been a process,” county finance officer Samantha Richardson told commissioners. “Department heads sent in their wants and requests, and we’ve gone through them, trying to prioritize them.”

The county took over EMS and is expected to open a second EMS station in Midway soon. It also is close to finishing its fire service headquarters near Midway, which will be staffed with full-time firefighters.

By sector, public safety makes up about 42% of the budget.

“Having public safety represent the largest piece of pie represents the effort and dedication you have made to ensure the safety of the citizens,” Richardson said.

Purchased services have gone from $8.7 million to $11.8 million, a 35% jump. Property and casualty insurance for the county increased by $1.5 million from FY 23.

“This one took us by surprise,” Richardson said. “The county felt a real big hit this year.”

Property taxes, which account for the bulk of the county’s general fund revenue, are expected to bring in about $37 million. Currently, property taxes are pegged for $30.2 million for FY 23.

The county also expects its share of sales and use tax, known as LOST, to go up from $4.9 million to $5.2 million.

Salaries and wages take up just over half of the expenditures, at $28.8 million. It’s an increase of almost $4 million.

Other budget challenges, Richardson pointed out, were the county’s obligation to provide fire and EMS service throughout the county and putting into place the salary study conducted in 2022.

The county’s budget has a 16% increase in salaries and wages. Some of that was due to new public safety positions that were created in the middle of last year’s budget and will be fully funded for an entire year now, Richardson said. Merit and longevity pay, and cost-of-living adjustments, also contributed to the rise in salaries and wages being paid out.

The proposed budget has $1.4 million in pay for new personnel, and new hires in public safety account for $1.2 million of that total, Richardson said.

Merit and longevity pay, along with the new salary structure from the salary study, accounts for about $2.1 million.

“Your human capital is your most valuable asset,” Richardson said.

The raises recommended by the salary study vary across the board, County Administrator Joey Brown said. If approved, they will go into effect July 1.

The new salaries also are expected to help the county keep trained and experienced personnel.

“Hopefully we can retain those employees with the job market we currently have,” Commissioner Connie Thrift said.

Chairman Donald Lovette said attracting personnel to Liberty County also has been problematic.

Mandatory services, those which by law the county is obligated to provide, make up about 50% of the budget. Those services deemed essential, such as fire, EMS, animal control, mosquito control and juvenile court, make up 49% of the budget. Only 1% of the budget is designated for discretionary spending.

She added the budget could see some decreases before its final adoption. The property digest has not been finalized, meaning a millage rate has not been set.

“We don’t want to put any more burden on the taxpayers than we have to,” Commissioner Gary Gilliard said.

Chairman Lovette said the county needs to continue to push for more commercial and industrial development.

“When you have a whole lot of rooftops, they require a lot of services,” he said. “I’m pleased where we are now and we need to keep promoting for more commercial and industrial (development) to help our community out.”

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