By ALICIA LEONARD
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) approved the 2008-2209 budget after much discussion over Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson’s request for additional funds to meet payroll for 10 employees, several more than had been approved for hiring by the BCC.
The BCC voted 4-1 to approve the budget at $111,409,645. Commissioner Cindy Meadows dissented from the group and voted no because of the WCSO payroll issues. The county millage rate was adopted at 3.3563. The aggregate millage rate county wide is 3.3913 mills, which is less than the roll back rate of 3.7248 by 8.95 percent.
Walton County Finance Director Bill Imfeld presented the budget resolution for the BCC. He told the commissioners that due to the anticipated $833,00 cut anticipated by the state in less sales tax revenue, the county had been tasked to try and find a way to replace these funds. Imfeld said, “Two of the areas we have been looking at is to bring back any unspent health insurance funds and any unspent worker comp funds will come to around $625,000.” Imfeld added that with other trimming, reviewing health care contracts and two more positions being cut from the county, his office believed they would be able to make up for the short fall and keep the budget as presented.
Overall the county has cut 18 positions, by combining positions or not refilling them as they have come open. All county constitutional officers received a request from the BCC to come back with a zero increase in their budgets for the coming 2008-2009 year.
Johnson brought CPA Robert Patrick and attorney Matt Burns to plead his case for more funding to keep from cutting positions. Burns told the BCC that due to Florida Statue 129.06, beginning October first, Johnson, due to losing the primary and no longer being the incumbent, would lose the ability to move funds within his budget to cover payroll. During a calendar month, only one-twelfth of the budget set for personnel can be used to cover payroll per month, per the statute.
A confusing discussion ensued over what had actually been paid and what constituted remaining funds in the WCSO budget. Johnson and his representatives requested either giving him the ability to move funds between accounts to cover payroll or give his budget additional funds to cover the 10 employees.
Imfeld told the the BCC that they had funded the number of employees requested for the WCSO since 2004. “Last September, when we were showing that he should have had 199 employees, he said he had 202 on board and said he would not hire any more or give any additional raises, I hear now there is 207 onboard, maybe more. Overstaffing has been an issue. There is also an additional issue of $72,000 added for professional staffing, which I will assume is for Mr. Patrick’s services.”
Commissioner Sara Comander noted that all other constitutional officers had been able to heed their request and trim spending and the WCSO had not. Meadows responded that the WCSO was different because they work around the clock and have endured increases in gas cost and repairs and maintenance.
Comander pointed out that in January, if the BCC went along with Johnson’s request to have the ability to move funds, the incoming sheriff would have a deficit of $60,000 in personnel funds.
County Attorney W.C. Henry expressed his concern over providing Johnson with the ability to move more than the alloted amount allowed by the statute. He said the way the statue was written, it could possibly leave the commissioners open for legal difficulties since it is their duty to protect these funds. Henry said in closing, “I’m not sure if that is an unlawful delegation of your authority.”
After another discussion about the budget, Commissioner Scott Brannon moved to approve the budget as is and Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen seconded the motion. The budget was approved.
Johnson said after the meeting he was still mulling his options about any type of recourse and would have to follow through with the layoffs effective September 30. “It doesn’t matter who the new sheriff is come January, they are going to need more money. We run round the clock and that cost is not static. This isn’t about me, this is about the service we are able to offer the public and our citizens,” said Johnson.
BCC Chairman, Larry Jones said after the meeting, that “almost $11 million has been trimmed from the budget in the last two years and all other constitutional officers had been able to come back, after finding ways to meet our goals. As Sara said, it’s not fair that one office is not required to do the same.”
Clerk of Court Martha Ingle concurred the following day, ” We have merged positions, and not filled other vacant ones to meet our goals. We actually came in $22,000 under budget for 2008-2009.”