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Hiring freeze relaxed
Board eases restrictions for departments of elected officials
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Forsyth County News

Forsyth County's hiring freeze will remain in effect for the foreseeable future, though departments led by elected officials will be able to bring on new employees, county commissioners ruled Tuesday.

The commission also directed County Attorney Ken Jarrard to draft a resolution that would trim the budgets of individual departments as discussed with department heads.

The moves come as the county continues to grapple with a $9.57 million shortfall in its fiscal year 2008 budget.

About $5 million could be shifted from general fund reserves to help cover the deficit, but that money would have to be paid back to maintain the county's bond rating, which determines its ability to issue bonds.

At Tuesday's work session, Chief Financial Officer Bill Thomas told commissioners that if the $5 million were used, the county would ultimately have to make up a $14.57 million shortfall in reserve funds.

That figure includes the $9.57 budget deficit, which officials have attributed to the sluggish economy and a lack of development.

Commissioners likely will vote Sept. 18 to decrease the budgets of all county departments, as well as use identified savings from unfilled positions.

Tuesday's motion to remove the hiring freeze for the departments of elected officials passed 3-2, with Commissioners Charles Laughinghouse and Jim Harrell opposing it.

Other departments may soon be able to come to the board to determine on a case-by-case basis if they also could be exempt from the freeze.

Departments exempt from the hiring freeze will still have to come up with the money they would have saved on unfilled positions.

For example, $752,010 in savings that would have come by not filling positions at the sheriff's office will have to be made up elsewhere in that department's budget.

Four other departments will be allowed to hire employees, but also must somehow make up the difference. These include clerk of courts, probate court, fire department and tax commissioner's office.

Tax Commissioner Matthew Ledbetter said his department was feeling the effects of the hiring freeze.

"The tax season is here," he said. "And we've had to terminate an employee, we've had one retire, one out for surgery and one's out having a baby."

Ledbetter is considered a constitutional officer, and so are the heads of the other departments affected by Tuesday's decision.

Sheriff Ted Paxton took exception to being told by commissioners when he could hire and promote personnel.

"With all due respect, the sheriff doesn't have to come to the board of commissioners for permission to do these things," Paxton said. "Not when it comes down to the day-to-day operation of my office."

Paxton said deputies who have been awaiting promotions are being told they can't be promoted.

"I have no problem not filling new positions," he said. "But from a constitutional standpoint, I cannot see the decision of promoting to another entity."

Interim County Manager Doug Derrer said staff has worked with department heads during the last few weeks to determine how each could cut its budget.

"We want to make sure we communicate very clearly with department heads," Derrer said. "The cuts you see have been agreed to, and they claim they can continue to operate in 2008 with those cuts."

Thomas has been working with the board over the past few weeks to find ways to offset the growing budget deficit.

At the Aug. 12 work session, commissioners voted 3-2 to freeze hiring. The move was made to buy officials time to study recommendations from Thomas.

Commissioners Linda Ledbetter and Brian Tam opposed the measure. Ledbetter later voiced concern over $5 million in reserves she said appeared to have been moved by administration without the commission's approval.

Jarrard later determined that officials had the authority to move that amount from county reserves, though they had not done so.

Confusion over the matter later played a part in the commission's decision to fire County Manager Rhonda Poston-O'Connor.