Local News

December 7, 2013

Public hearing on Whitfield budget Monday

Whitfield County can’t keep reaching into its bag of budget tricks much longer, Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said.

For the past three years, the county’s pension fund has been funded at more that 100 percent, so the county hasn’t had to budget any money for the pension plan, allowing it to spend that money on other items. But over that time, as liabilities have grown, that percentage has slipped. And the county’s proposed 2014 budget adds about $600,000 in pension funding to keep the plan at 100 percent.

All told, the projected 2014 operating budget comes to about $40.7 million, up from around $37.3 million in projected spending for this year.

The board will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at 6 p.m. Monday at 6 in Administrative Building 2. They are expected to vote on a final budget on Monday, Dec. 16, at noon in the same building.

In addition to increased funding for pensions, the 2014 budget also includes about $450,000 in new funding for health care. The county is self-insured, but its health plan is administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.

“They have told us to expect about a 10 percent increase in claims,” finance director Alicia Vaughn said.

Vaughn said claims are forecast to be basically flat this year.

“We also have some new fees that we have to pay because of (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act),” she said.

For instance, the county will pay $58,729 in reinsurance fees, a fee charged on insurance plans that will go to subsidize insurance companies that incur high claims in the individual markets. They will also pay some $1,900 Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) fees to fund medical research.

Despite these cost increases, officials say workers won’t face an increase in premiums. But they will see some changes that could cost them more. For instance, the deductible has been doubled to $500 from $250. The plan covers some 900 people including workers and their family members.

Funding for most departments and agencies in the general budget will remain about the same in 2014 as 2013.

“All of the department heads and constitutional officers tried to keep their budget requests the same as their requests for 2013. Where there are increases, the majority is things like the pension and health coverage that affect everyone,” Vaughn said.

One exception is public works, which received and will spend about $500,000 from the state for road repaving.

“That’s the only repaving we will do,” Babb said.

In addition, the county will help cover some spending by drawing down a $1.4 million overpayment in worker’s compensation.

“That’s a one-time thing. We won’t be able to do that again,” Vaughn said.

The same budget forecasts revenue of $37.3 million, leaving it with a deficit of about $3.4 million. Officials will cover that by drawing from its fund balance.

The budget forecast calls for the county to end 2014 with a fund balance of $12 million, and some $10.3 million of that is dedicated to its 90-day reserve. Officials say their budget experts recommend keeping 90 days of spending on hand to cover and cash flow issues.

With the fund balance getting closer to that 90-day reserve and with the need once more to  fund the pension plan, Babb said commissioners are running out of wiggle room on the budget.

“We can probably get by one more year without a tax increase, but after that we’d be in really bad shape. We’d be below the 90-day surplus, plus we have some real needs that we haven’t addressed,” he said.

“People say, ‘You need to cut spending.’ Well, I defy them to compare is to any other county of our size. Look at their millage rate and spending per capita. I think they’ll find they are getting a pretty good deal,” Babb said.

Data provided by the county shows it has a lower property tax rate and lower per capita spending that Lowndes, Bartow and Floyd counties.

The fire department is no longer part of the general budget but is funded from a special tax district. It’s proposed 2014 budget is $5.3 million, up from $4.2 million in 2013. That includes restoring three battalion chief positions that were cut several years ago at the start of the economic downturn.

“For the past few years, we’ve put a lot of the burden on our fire chief, and we just don’t think we can continue to ask him to do that,” Babb said.

But officials say that despite the increase in fire department spending, they don’t believe they will need to raise the combined tax rate for its special tax districts. That 2-mill tax is projected to bring in an additional $400,000 next year and the rest will be covered by a surplus from this year.

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