Thursday, December 24, 2009
Legislators, supervisors talk budget
By SUE WATSON
The Marshall County Board of Supervisors, anticipating heavy budget cuts at the state level, recently discussed the upcoming state budget dilemma with members of the local delegation.
Supervisors are attempting to develop proposals for the 2010 legislative session and to plan for next year’s local budget.
First up were discussions by the supervisors with consultant Gary Anderson relative to the possibility of finding funding for railroad overpasses at Byhalia and Potts Camp. The long waits at train stops are holding up traffic and trains blocking the tracks are causing concerns about critical services like ambulance, law officers and fire departments that have to get across the tracks in times of emergency.
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett said a fly-over is needed with six more trains a day running the tracks through Potts Camp. Wait times when trains stop are anywhere from 35 minutes to 45 minutes or more, supervisors said.
Blocked tracks mean motorists are late to work in the morning, school children must wait in buses for the tracks to clear, as well as safety concerns, they said.
The estimated cost to build a fly-over in Potts Camp was $13 million and in Byhalia was $18 million or more.
But accidents are the worst worry, said Bennett, and added that the state waits until enough people die at a railroad crossing before building something like an overpass.
State Rep. Kelvin Buck joined the discussion.
“Everything (in the state budget) in terms of infrastructure is in jeopardy,” he said. “A lot of things will not happen and highways will suffer as well. And subsidies for tags is in jeopardy, meaning tags could go up (for the vehicle owner). All issues are on the table and nobody wants (tax) revenue increases. They are even talking about doing away with some mental health centers. We’re discussing some serious issues.”
Chuck Thomas asked about increasing the Homestead Tax exemption for senior citizens. Buck said Jackson is looking at saving money there, too.
“Another issue is garbage,” Thomas said.
Bennett added, “Times are bad, no doubt about it. The bad thing about it is the State of Mississippi can drop it (mandated expenditures) back on us. It makes the legislators and governor look good. When it falls back in our laps we have to raise taxes and it makes us look bad.”
The millage for schools, car tags and education are pass-downs to the counties, Buck said.
“It’s important to make that distinction,” he said.
Supervisor Keith Taylor added that when the local school board had to increase millage due to cuts in the state department of education’s budget, the supervisors got complaints from citizens, although they had no power over it.
Bennett said that once mandates are laid at the feet of county taxpayers, they are funding mandates forever.
“We either raise taxes or cut services,” he said.
Taylor said new people moving out of the cities clammer for services and expect them when they arrive in the county.
“They expect when they ring the bell for somebody to come running,” he said. “The state is putting more and more on us.”
Anderson said everyone is in a “shortfall-type of environment.”
“We, as counties, need to be in a defensive posture and try to protect ourselves,” he said. “There will be times when we will need y’all down there (to help pressure legislators).”
The counties get a certain percentage of the Homestead taxes they collect back from the state, said Susie Hill. The school district and the county split the refunds of those taxes. But if the Homestead exemption cap for seniors is raised from $75,000 to $100,000 that means a loss of refund from the state and the county has to cut its budget or increase taxes overall to make up for the loss in refunds.
Taylor recalled how the board of supervisors lowered the mill rate by 10 points two years ago to help off-set the increase in property values. The board has also not given employees raises for two years in a row, he said. He said the taxpayers seemed not to understand those facts.
“I’ve been very disappointed how the state has treated the counties,” he said.
State Sen. Bill Stone said a problem in the Legislature is that there are not enough elected officials there who have served at the local level and who understand the situations at home.
Taylor and county administrator Larry Hall predicted the state will have budget woes due to declining tax revenues for longer than most are willing to say.
Buck said the shortfall in state sales tax revenues is $700 million or more or about 11-12 percent of the general fund’s budget.
Anderson added that the Department of Transportation wants to add a 5 cents excise tax but he does not think that measure will make it through the Ways and Means Committee.
Buck said the questions are how much cutting of the budget are elected officials willing to do and how much in services the public will give up.
“There’s only so much you can cut,” he said. “Even corporations and businesses - everybody else has to make cuts. Everybody wants so much but does not want to raise taxes for services.”
He said politicians in Jackson are looking at exemptions given to corporations, to farmers, to industry as means of making up revenues.
“Identify three things you don’t want cut,” Buck recommended. “Protect what you’ve got.”
State sales tax revenues were off by $23 million in November and by $170 million for the year, he said.
“We have a Rainy Day Fund,” he said. “Now it’s time to use it.”
The Rainy Day Fund has about $230 million in it and Governor Barbour has said he is willing to use up to one-third of it, Buck said. But the Legislature wants about half the dollars in the fund to help balance the budget, he said.
Buck said it is important to remember the economy will not always remain depressed.
“We are not stockpiling money anywhere and the next few years are critical,” Taylor said.
Anderson said he expects legislators will find about half the shortfall in revenue and the other half will probably come from budget cuts.
Bennett and Taylor said garbage collections is the biggest issue the county has - supervisors must budget for $650,000 a year to cover costs of delinquent payments, even though the county recovers about half that.
Taylor suggested the county work with utility companies to do the billing for garbage because services can be turned off if customers don’t pay their garbage bills.
Anderson said bills that would allow counties to collect garbage fees through utilities just won’t pass the Legislature because of strong utility lobbies.
Stone said the power companies can bill and collect garbage fees for the county if they want to enter agreements. Legislation is not needed.
With that, the board voted unanimously to look at maps of the utilities in the county and then approach power companies to see if they will do the billing and collections for a small fee, since they are sending out monthly statements. A large portion of the garbage bill is to cover billing costs.
Following this discussion, Hall said the county could save money for hauling rubbish and construction waste if another rubbish site were built. The currently approved three-acre site is near to capacity, he said.
He said if the county got a Class I site approved, the county could establish the site and hire a company to run it and to collect tipping fees. The pit would serve as a repository of the county’s and taxpayers’ debris and rubble and save the county money it now pays for having it hauled out of county, he said. The site would operate at a profit by charging tipping fees.
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