Wednesday, October 19, 2005

TOP STORY >> Cutting jobs critical to balancing budget

Leader staff writer

The question of a new quarter-cent, dedicated county sales tax to run the jail was the 800-pound gorilla studiously ignored by County Judge Floyd “Buddy” Villines and members of the Pulaski County Budget Com-mittee during a meeting Tues-day morning.

For now, the county, obligated by law to submit a balanced budget, is faced with the pros-pect of cutting 122 county jobs to trim $7 million from the budget. The county’s financial woes are largely attributable to the county’s ever-increasing share of the cost of running a 1,125-bed detention facility filled mostly with prisoners from Little Rock and North Little Rock.

While 2006 general-fund requests, based on the 2005 budget, totaled $62 million, the county ultimately has only $40.1 million available for appropriation, according to Villines, compared to $46.3 million last year.
That means elected officials must cut nearly $7 million.

It can reduce the budget by about $6 million by cutting the 122 positions from a total of 786 positions.
Most of the rest will come from substituting compensatory time for overtime and from cutting most part-time and extra help.
Of those, Villines proposes to cut 28 people from his staff, while Sheriff Randy Johnson must cut 91 positions, many of them jailers and deputies.

The county will begin shutting down a 165-bed pod of the jail starting the last day of October, according to John Rehraurer, spokesman for the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, and cut it by 20 beds per week until the inmate population is reduced from 1,125 to 800.
“It’s becoming a harder and harder jail,” he said, with the non-violent offenders being released.

About a dozen deputies gathered around County Clerk Pat O’Brien and County Attorney Karla Burnett to ask why a new tax couldn’t be enacted by voters.

O’Brien said it would take only about 45 days to get a proposal on the ballot, but a new tax could not be enacted in time to affect the county’s 2006 budget crisis, according to Burnett. There is also a 30-day waiting period to allow appeals after such a vote.
“We have to have a balanced budget by Dec. 31,” Burnett said.

While the county must pay $19 million out of a $40 million budget to run the jail, Little Rock is not happy about paying its $2 million share out of a $130 million budget, said quorum court member Pat-ricia Dicker.
In 1997, the county’s share was only about $4 million.

Because the county jail sops up about one-half of all available revenues, the county has had to divert money from capital improvements — fixing roofs, for instance.

Villines said people used the word “crisis” too freely, “but folks, this is a crisis,” he said.
“We’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Three members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving held posters in the front row of the meeting, expressing opposition to plans to reduce the number of available beds in the lock up from 1,125 to 800 in order to reduce costs — mostly personnel costs.
Villines identified four reasons for the financial difficulty:

• Growth in the number of jail beds and associated costs including prisoner medical costs
• An ever-decreasing amount of revenue from the countywide sales tax attributable to the growth of cities at the expense of the county
• Expansion of the number of stores in adjacent counties — meaning they don’t have to come to Pulaski County to shop
• An increase in employee benefits.