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Commissioners debate tapping into reserve funds

By Staff | Jun 18, 2009

Facing a budgetary shortfall in excess of $150 million, Lee County commissioners must decide if the $94 million in reserves should be used to help the county through the next fiscal year.
Though only three of the five board members were present for Wednesday’s workshop — Ray Judah and Bob Janes were absent — those present did little to reach a consensus on the best course of action.
It was a preliminary attempt to comprehend the challenges Lee County is facing.
Commissioner Frank Mann said he thinks the reserves should be saved for unseen financial hardships ahead, while Commissioner Brian Bigelow said overtaxation is at the heart of such plentiful reserves. Vice Chairwoman Tammy Hall took the opposite stance, saying reserves are built for times like these.
All three commissioners suggested more cuts.
For their part, constitutional offices presented budgets that did include small cuts.
The Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office cut 1 percent from its budget, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office cut 2 percent, the Lee County Supervisor of Elections Office cut 6 percent and the Lee County Circuit Court cut 5 1/2 percent reduction, to name a few.
While most of the presentations pleased commissioners, it did little to belay the anxiety of falling property tax and impact fee revenues that county management staff member Pete Winton described as being in a “dramatic plummet.”
Winton said the county has taken some steps to cut costs, including wage freezes, eliminating 238 positions and leaving 158 positions vacant. Even with these steps, he warned that some core services would be affected by the budget crunch, though Winton did not mention specifics.
“There will be some service level adjustments,” he said. “But it will be more of a tweaking.”
Management staff is predicting revenues for the 2010-11 fiscal year to be the same as the 2009-10 cycle.
Winton and acting County Manager Karen Hawes told commissioners that they could not decide the best course of action for the reserves, but suggested setting philosophical debate aside to make the most appropriate decision for the county.
“Whatever your thoughts are on reserves … this is the rainy day you’ve built them for,” Winton said.
Mann agreed with some of Bigelow’s assertions that Lee County residents are overtaxed, but he could not get past the vision of an even bleaker financial picture.
“We’re looking at these reserves to subsidize this budget, but there’s no guarantee things will get better,” he said. “I have no expectations our revenues will return next year.”
Commissioners are going to set the maximum millage rate July 6, before their summer recess. After returning from break they will have a capital improvement project workshop Aug. 11.
Public input will be accepted at budget workshops Sept. 3 and 17. Final budget is adopted Sept. 17.