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Officials look to balance budget
Commission trying to cut costs, not jobs
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Forsyth County News
From pets to printers, the Forsyth County commission continues to search for ways to trim the proposed budget for 2010.

Commissioners and county employees revisited the spending plan during a special called meeting Monday.

No final decisions were made, and another budget work session has been set for 2 p.m. Thursday.

With all the last-minute meetings, it appears increasingly unlikely that the commission will approve the budget as scheduled that day, Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse said.

The current budget proposal projects about $77.9 million in revenue and about $79.1 million in spending. Adjusting deficits in departments has reduced spending by about $37,000 since the previous meeting Dec. 8.

“We’ve been cutting fat, and now we’re cutting muscle,” Commissioner Patrick Bell said after Monday’s meeting. “And it’s painful.”

Unpopular suggestions for making up the nearly $1.2 million difference, such as cutting positions and reducing salaries, were met with silence Monday. But employees embraced the possibility of small cuts among the various departments.

Officials floated many possibilities during the meeting. Among them, it was learned that the tax commissioner’s office is budgeted for more computers than it uses.

Clerk of Court Greg Allen noted that the county last year spent nearly double the cost needed for copiers.

Officials reasoned that other overspending errors could be out there. To that end, department heads were asked to check their inventory reports.

Information technology staff mentioned inefficiencies in office management, such as having printers in several offices instead of one printer that serves several employees.

The costs of ink and paper also entered into the discussion. It was suggested that the some departments could possibly cut costs by cross-training employees.

Officials also looked at shedding positions or hours in code enforcement, whose services are reportedly in less demand since development has slowed.

Bell wondered if the costs of housing and caring for stray animals may be too high, an issue that the commission plans to address next year.

One quick fix likely can be made by removing the funding for nine vacant positions currently included in the budget, which could save about $387,000.

It was also learned that doing away with a security post at the front desk of the county administration building could save about $75,000.

The position is manned by off-duty sheriff’s deputies, who get paid time and a half.

Laughinghouse opened Monday’s meeting by noting that residents who opposed a property tax increase this summer suggested services be cut instead, which hasn’t happened.

The discussion of lowering unnecessary costs was an effort to prevent possible furlough days, which employees strongly oppose.

Public safety officials said furloughs would be difficult for the departments but potentially life-threatening for residents who depending on their services.

In addition, mandatory days off without pay could actually end up costing the county more money, said Pat Giordano, director of the 911 center.

“We only allow one employee leave at any given time,” she said. “If you throw a furlough day in on top of that, we’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to end up paying overtime just to cover the vacancy of a furlough employee.”

The commission then discussed possibly exempting public safety departments from the furlough days.

In addition to the furloughs, county employees had difficulty understanding their department budgets, which due to a miscommunication were not received until Dec. 3, the day of the public budget hearing.

This confused several department heads, who wondered where the numbers originated and why their costs went up without new services.

As it turns out, officials explained, informational technology and internal service charges have increased due to past underfunding.

The county’s finance office determines the budget numbers.

An examination by office staff discovered that costs for some areas, such as technology and software, had previously been underfunded.

“This year is probably the first year that somebody’s rolled up their sleeves and looked at those,” Bell said after the meeting. “That’s why they’re complaining. They weren’t charged for them last year and now they are.”

Sheriff Ted Paxton said his department saw a $3 million rise in internal service funds. These types of increases make it appear as if the budget for the sheriff’s office has increased, when in fact the operating budget has dropped.

“So you’re saying there’s been mistakes made in the past, so you’re all going to make up for it,” Paxton said. “This is certainly going to affect the services.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard suggested the commission vote on the holiday, 401K and furlough day proposals Monday to give staff some “certainty” about the direction the budget may take. Votes made during work sessions are not binding.

In the end, however, the commissioners couldn’t agree on what they wanted to do and will revisit the matter later.