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Columbia County Observer

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$39,432,968 County Budget Gets Expected Stamp of Approval: Reserves may be more than budget

Sheriff makes unscheduled appearance at microphone

County Manager Dale Williams, know in many circles as Mr. Columbia County, makes his 24th annual Columbia County budget presentation.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Last night, the County's first FY 2014 budget hearing went off without a hitch as the County 5 (County Commission) approved the $39,432,968 budget without a single question. County Manager Dale Williams explained that the restricted and unrestricted County reserves were down $5 million to $24 million due to Hurricane Debbie. He explained that the cash balance forward was about $20 million.


Columbia County has for years had stashes of money all over the place (read different funds) whose revenue streams are sketchy at best, making it almost impossible to follow the money as it winds through the county coffers.

In response to a question by the Observer regarding the total County reserves, County Manager Dale Williams explained, "I believe at the beginning of the year the County had 24 million, down from 29 million the year before; that was related to Hurricane Debbie.

The $24,000,000 was explained to be in both restricted and unrestricted funds.

The County has never detailed that $5 million dollar loss, nor have the County 5 ever publically asked for an explanation.

Cash Balance Forward: about $20,000,000 more

CM Williams explained the cash balance forward: "Not legally considered a reserve. Cash balance forward is the money necessary to operate the County while you're waiting to generate revenue from the bills [tax bills]that have been submitted. The year starts in October. You'll be collecting money through March of the following year. You have to have enough capital to operate. That's cash balance forward. It's about 20 million."

Not discussed was the recently enacted County Assessments for fire and trash, which now gives Columbia County residents an effective $376 a year country living assessment. Compared to some other rural counties, it is way over the top.

CM Williams is the chief budget officer for the County. He summed up his presentation. "We included no new or upgraded employees in the budget. We also remain true to the county's budgeting principles. We maintained a revenue-based budget -- we didn't go out and do big loans; we didn't bring in nonrecurring money; we always prepare our own revenue estimates because historically we have found our estimates are much better indicators of the future than those provided by the state."

Here comes the Sheriff

Sheriff Mark Hunter makes a point.

Commissioner Williams invited Sheriff Hunter from his spot in the back of the auditorium to come to the microphone.

Com. Williams said that he wants to look at the pay scales for "fire, 911, and the Sheriff's deputies."  Talking about pay raises he said, "We can't do it countywide anymore."

Sheriff Hunter responded, "I agree."

The Sheriff mentioned that he has been working on a step plan for the Sheriff's office, which some of the commissioners have seen. "I think we're ready to have a step plan... People need to understand instead of going backwards, and I think they are gettin it -- instead of goin backwards with their pay, we need to keep them up to date and it takes tough management to do that."

Sheriff Hunter said that sometimes he feels like he is left out of the process. Earlier this year the Sheriff turned in a budget to the County which reflected an across-the-board 3% increase. The County blew it off.

Sheriff Hunter told the County 5, "I don't think you've had a Sheriff that's been as open with our budget as I have."

Before Sheriff Hunter

Before Sheriff Hunter was elected and for a time thereafter it was standard operating procedure that built into the Sheriff's budget were pumped up numbers which enabled the Sheriff to return hundreds of thousands of dollars to the County Commission. After the economy tanked this became more difficult. The County used the consent agenda to keep this money under the radar.

In years past, the County 5 didn't care about the attrition in the Sheriff's Office as Deputies left for greener pastures. They cared about using the Sheriff's office as a revenue source. Now, with the cost of training, the investment in personnel, and the County's reputation of not paying a fair wage, these policies have become counterproductive.

Sheriff Hunter said, "We want the County to be safe so that other people come here and build. All these projects you want to bring in; all these businesses you want to bring in; if they don't feel like this is a safe town they are not going to come here."

Keeping the Public in the Loop?

Sheriff Hunter explained that he has met with the County 5 on an individual basis to explain his budget.

Shortly after Mark Hunter was elected Sheriff, the public presentations of the Sheriff's budget ended.

Sheriff Hunter has a new plan.

Commissioner Nash asked the Sheriff to make some time for him to come out to the Sheriff's Office to explain his new employee pay step plan.

It is not clear why Commissioner Nash, who ran and was elected on a platform of openness and transparency, did not invite the Sheriff back to the County Commission to explain his new plan so that the public, the folks who are going to pay for it, would know what it was about.

Commissioner DePratter said that with the County finding out about last minute budget changes by the State it is difficult to budget for raises.

Com. DePratter said, "I'm all about doing what we can for employees -- all employees -- everyone."

Sheriff Hunter said the Sunshine Law makes it difficult to be informal with the County Commission. "I don't have anything to hide, but sometimes it's good to sit down in a relaxed environment."

Sheriff Hunter continued, "I don't really think that you understand the law enforcement piece of it."

Public Records: sometimes not really public

Commissioner Bailey explained that when the Commissioners came out to the Sheriff's office at the beginning of the budget cycle they could not leave with any written information, "You wouldn't let us take anything out that you had prepared for us."

Commissioner Bailey then asked for the salary survey which the Sheriff had prepared.

Commissioner Bailey explained that he thought step plans have caused a lot of negative budget issues.

Commissioner Bailey said he calculated the Sheriff's budget to be 63% of the ad valorem (property) taxes collected county wide.

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