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County Council - May 5

Finance Committee to consider using sales tax to free up funds
Will it be legal?
Warwick Jones, standing in for Shawn Keller who is on military duty in Iraq

The Finance Committee is looking at a way to shift some public works funding to the half cent sales tax and free up funds for other purposes. The County Administrator Mr. Windham plans on making a presentation to the Committee next Tuesday as to the possibilities that are open to the Council. The possibility of shifting the funding was raised in budget sessions last week.

Consideration of shifting some public works funding arises from both the need to fund a range of other projects and the desire to hold down property tax increases. Budget sessions last week highlighted some heavy expenditure in front of the County, particularly in relation to the new jail and the Azalea Complex. At those sessions, Mr. Windham expressed hope that spending could be financed without resorting to a property tax increase and without any diversion of funding from public works. Yesterday's budget session indicated that pressures are mounting and that an increase in property taxes seems highly likely unless funds can be diverted from public works and replaced by sales tax proceeds.

Yesterday's session was taken up with consideration of budgets for Elected and Appointed Officials. This category includes such entities as the Clerk of Court, Coroner, Probate Courts, Register of Mesne Conveyance, Electors and Voters Registration etc. A summary of the budgets can be seen by clicking here

Some entities are hurting in fiscal pinch
Mr. Windham, in preparing the budget had obviously attempted to be conservative and presumably was conscious of the tight financial position of the County and the desire to not increase property taxes. However, in doing so he trod of some toes and there were pleas for more funds for certain activities. The State controlled Mental Health Center had its allocation cut to zero from $55,000 last year. The County was not obliged by law to make a contribution so it decided not to. But as was pointed out, the Mobile Crisis Unit operated by the Center was a considerable asset to the community and made a lot of difference to the work load of law enforcement officers. Council nodded very appreciatively of what it was doing. And then there was the presentation by Judge Condon asking for $75,000 for another counsel and associate. And a request from Circuit Solicitor Hoisington for as much as $341,000, to replace federal funding that was about to dry up, and to create 3 new positions. He noted that warrants issued by the Courts had risen from 9449 in 2000 to 10213 in 2004. This year, judging from the first 3 months, the figure would be even higher. The work load was heavy now but it would be very heavy indeed if the Courts had to cut out the 3 positions financed presently by Federal Grants

Warning on Federal Grants
Mr. Windham also sounded a warning on Federal Grants and it was later endorsed by Council member Fava. The Federal Government may have shown largesse in making some grants but these came with a price. The original grant may have financed the purchase of assets or the provision of services, but it was the responsibility of the County to maintain them. Mr. Windham instanced computer equipment or special vehicles. The lives of both were limited and although there was no outlay or cost to the County initially, the cost of replacement would be borne by the County. Council member Fava spoke bitterly about the Federal Government's attempt to shift spending to the States and beyond. This trend may have started some years ago but local government now was particularly feeling the impact. The trend had lightened the fiscal burden on the Federal Government, but the State and local governments had to pick up much of what had been shifted.

Will the shift be legal or in the spirit of the referendum wording?
So will the County be able to use the Sales tax proceeds for financing some existing public works? Council chairman Stavrinakis said last week that such a move could precipitate a law suit. But County Attorney Dawson said that he thought it would be legal. We wonder what voters who approved the sales tax increase in the referendum think? Yes, the major part of the sales tax proceeds was to go on roads and transportation but the understanding was that it would be directed at specific projects approved by the oversight committee. The latter was to be comprised of citizens, each chosen by a member of Council, with some members also chosen by the cities of the County. Will the oversight committee be consulted in this shift of funding? Should it be? Will the Cities of the County come to Council with requests for funds to do the same thing the County proposes? It is probably premature to come to a conclusion until Mr. Windham makes his presentation and the Council has time to consider his proposals. But there are some things to ponder.

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