By Beth Lawrence

The typically bland commissioners’ meetings turned a bit salty recently when the board sparred over the direction of the budget.

The dustup happened at meetings on June 11 and 12, the most recent of a series of budget meetings. Early meetings analyzed the current budget and heard requests from county departments and nonprofit agencies.

Several board members supported the budget as presented by County Manager Don Adams and Finance Director Darlene Fox.

Tensions began when Commissioner Mickey Luker expressed concern over school taxes designed to meet needs at Jackson County schools.

He hoped that the tax could be eliminated if the schools’ needs had been addressed, giving residents a tax break during the tumultuous pandemic economy.

“I think there’s ways we can decrease (the budget),” Luker said. “We need to refocus more on how we can give a break to every citizen of Jackson County … even if it’s in the short term. That would send a clear message to each and every family in the county that we realize … that you’re hurting and we’re looking at ways we can help relieve some of that.”

Luker was informed that the tax was to fund ongoing staffing and safety needs.

Tensions deepened when Commissioner Ron Mau proposed more changes to the budget after his review.

“I’ve spent more time on this budget than any of the ones we’ve looked at, mainly because of everything related to COVID and the economy,” Mau said. “This year we’re on pace to spend about $61 million based on our most recent financial update and looking at historical data. Our (new) budget is for $66.5 million. There’s $5.5 million dollars out there that I’m trying to figure out, what do we do for the citizens of Jackson County when we’ve got that big discrepancy.”

The proposed $66.5 million budget keeps property taxes at 38 cents per $100 valuation, proposes a one-step pay increase for county employees but no cost of living raise, adds several county jobs, provides $638,330 for new vehicles for some county departments, allots $628,874 for new equipment including computers, maintenance and cleaning equipment; funds improvements to local facilities including DSS and recreational facilities, continues funding for the new health department and permitting center, animal shelter and renovations to the justice center; allocates $7.9 million to schools, gives more than $2 million to Southwestern Community College and proposes fee increases for some recreational activities, public health tests and permits and some health department lab and immunization fees.

Mau’s plan suggested a 10 percent property tax cut.

“That’s $3.8 million,” he said. “That gives everybody in Jackson County a raise, helps them out in a tough time, helps them out when the unemployment rate has tripled in Jackson County over the last couple of months. We heard from nonprofits, many indicated that they anticipate a greater need for services in the upcoming year based on COVID and the suffering economy.”

Mau suggested temporarily funding nonprofits at the levels they requested to meet increased needs noting that nonprofits offer crucial services that the county cannot cover.

He suggested a 1.4 percent teacher supplement increase, giving county employees the same 1.4 percent cost of living increase and freezing salaries of employees earning more than twice the average county employee salary. The freeze would save the county $23,000.

Mau reminded the board that the county’s fund balance was in good shape and suggested it was time to fall back on that to cover some expenses.

Luker expressed approval for Mau’s plan.

Commissioner Gayle Woody voiced reservations.

“We don’t know what’s going to be happening with our economy and as we know a large part of our property tax comes from second homes,” she said. “If you remember back in 2008 so many of those second and third homes went into foreclosure and our tax revenue went way down. We are so blessed in Jackson County to have a healthy fund balance. I think we have to protect that for our citizens.”

She suggested revisiting the issue in January when more is known about the pandemic’s impacts.

The meeting recessed until June 12 for consideration of Mau’s recommendations.

“I don’t disagree with some of the things that are being requested,” Chairman Brian McMahan said when the meeting resumed. “There are benefits, and some of those have already been identified and potentially will be a part of the budget but just in phases. At this time, personally, I think we ought to adopt the manager’s recommended budget.”

McMahan said the proposed budget was a foundation and changes could be made throughout the year as in the past.

McMahan polled the board for feedback on Mau’s suggestions.

Commissioner Boyce Deitz supported the proposed budget. Woody agreed with Deitz and McMahan.

She said many of Mau’s suggestions, such as teacher supplement increases, had “positive merit” but she couldn’t support them because there was no way to predict the full impact of COVID-19.

She also questioned Mau’s timing.

“We had a budget retreat in January; we’ve had work sessions; we’ve had presentations from each of these departments and presentations from other groups,” Woody said. “I wondered why the timing of yesterday was significant for his suggestions.”

Mau said he had been asking Adams questions all along.

“I asked the county manager ‘Do we start with actual budget or actual expenses back in February?’” Mau responded. “Yesterday was the first meeting that was really dedicated specifically to the budget. It was the first meeting after public hearing. As I stated yesterday, I was waiting for the most recent CPI data in order to fine tune some of my recommendations, so there was nothing about the timing like I was trying to catch anybody off guard. I was waiting for more information.”

He reiterated that residents were suffering and reminded the others that tax rates could only be set during budget planning and not amended.

Mau pointed out that there was still time to work on the budget before the end of June.

No further work was done on the budget at the June 16 work session.