Friday, December 16, 2011

TOP STORY >> Smokers get big break in 2012 budget

Leader staff writer

With a vote of 11-1, the Lonoke County Quorum Court passed its $6.9 million budget for 2012 Thursday night without the planned $50 a month surcharge for workers who use tobacco that would have increased revenue by about $30,000, but with the $126,000 that will be gained from cutting support to the cities for their district courts.

JP Bill Ryker voted against the budget because Lonoke and Carlisle have a court order from a lawsuit they won against the county in 1991 that lays out how much of the fine money they will be reimbursed for hearing county misdemeanor cases in their district courts.

JP Tim Lemons, chairman of the quorum court’s budget committee, opposed the surcharge when it was considered by the committee. He said it would be discussed after the first of the year by the insurance committee.

Ryker agreed with Lonoke City Attorney Camille Bennett and Carlisle Mayor Ray Glover that a new state law that says counties must pay only the salaries of the judge and head clerk unless other arrangements are made does not supersede their court order.

“Just so you know, I am authorized to file suit to enforce the agreement,” Bennett told the quorum court and County Judge Doug Erwin.

Altogether, the county will gain about $30,000 by not paying Lonoke and Carlisle the amounts they requested for 2012.

Lonoke requested $57,272, and the county intends to pay $41,035. Carlisle requested $44,558, and the county intends to pay $31,276.

“We can appreciate that you’re trying to balance your budget, but you’re doing it on the backs of the cities,” Glover said.

Ryker said none of the other cities took the initiative to let a court decide the matter, so they should be reimbursed according to state law.

The county’s mayors have known for less than a month that the quorum court was considering cutting funding to their courts.

In their search for revenue, the quorum court’s budget committee and the county judge learned that the county supported every district court at different levels. But Cabot got more than any of the others—half of all expenses, including the salaries of two probation officers and bonuses.

In 2011, the county contributed $143,861 and was expected to contribute $158,870 in 2012. But the budget approved Thursday gives Cabot only $59,904, half the salaries of the judge and two clerks.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert said this week that all the talk about cutting funding to district courts has made him think that it is time to ask the state legislature to consolidate the courts. One court in the northern part of the county and one in the southern part should be enough to handle the case load, he said.

In other business, the quorum court passed with a 7-5 vote the first reading of an ordinance for budget reform like the one in Pulaski County that sponsor JP Joe Farrer said is responsible for Pulaski moving from a $7 million deficit to an $11 million surplus.

The ordinance was supported by all the Republicans except JP Larry Odom. The Democrats voted against it.

If passed after two more readings, the ordinance will require the county’s elected officials, such as the clerk, sheriff and assessor, to get approval from the quorum court to move money in their budgets between spending categories. The ordinance also says that cumulative annual transfers that exceed 20 percent of the budget amount of the original line item in the same category must be approved by the quorum court.

Sheriff Jim Roberson spoke against the proposed ordinance.

“I don’t think there’s an elected official here who agrees with this,” the sheriff said.

Ryker told Farrer that an opinion from the attorney general said it was illegal.

And Odom said it wasn’t necessary because the only elected official who ever goes over budget is the sheriff and that can’t be helped no matter who holds the office.

“I spent the day trying to figure out how I can support this,” Odom said. “I can’t support it.”

Farrer, in his first year on the quorum court, said lack of foresight on the part of the “prior quorum court was to blame for the county’s financial problems.”

The county built the $6 million jail with a one-year, one-cent sales tax but didn’t ask voters for money to run it.

Odom, the chairman of the jail committee that got the jail built with 40 extra beds that could be rented to raise money to run it, called Farrer’s statement “malarkey.”

“Foresight my rear,” Odom said to Farrer.

Under Odom’s leadership, the jail committee decided against a plan to go with a Memphis firm that would have built a jail with 40 fewer beds for the same $6 million price tag. Those extra beds were always intended to support the jail, Odom said.

“Throw your track record up against mine, and you’ll see yours don’t have much in it,” Odom told Farrer.

The only unanimous vote Thursday night was to deny a request from Assessor Jack McNally who wanted to give his employees Christmas bonuses.

JP Tim Lemons said the county is giving 3 percent raises in 2012 and he opposed giving some employees more than others.

“If we can’t do it for every county employee, why should we do it for just a few?” Lemons asked.

McNally said the fund he proposed to take the money from was growing and that its legal uses were limited. His employees had worked hard and made many improvements over the past year including making possible online assessments, he said. A little extra money might keep that momentum going.

“And it’s Christmas,” he said.

But the quorum court showed by its vote that Lemons had spoken for all of them and the tone of McNally’s last statement indicated that he wasn’t pleased with the answer. “Thank you all very much. Merry Christmas,” McNally said after the vote.