If a modern-day Diogenes came searching, not for an honest man, but for fiscal responsibility in the Lee County Board room, he would leave sorely disappointed.
Lee County taxpayers should be disappointed, too, not to mention disgusted.
What other conclusion can observers draw from the board’s recent actions to increase spending yet again, in light of its sixth straight year of deficit spending and a projected $1 million a year revenue loss coming in 9 short months?
On Dec. 31, the board’s contract with Republic Services, operator of the county landfill, will expire. Republic pays the county about $1.8 million a year to dump trash here, no matter the tonnage. But tonnage has fallen precipitously since the contract was signed. County officials have said they expect any new contract to be worth only $800,000 a year, based on current tonnage.
The county originally put the landfill money aside to pay for capital projects, but now it relies heavily on it to plug holes in the operating budget. The current budget, which took effect Dec. 1, anticipates $8.4 million in general fund expenses but only $7.5 million in revenue. It includes $600,000 in transfers from the capital projects fund to offset the deficit.
This upcoming budgetary train wreck, this fiscal cliff, this slow-motion financial disaster, has been a long time in coming.
Back in 2011, some board members backed a wage-freeze idea for salary decisions that the board would face in 2012.
Rick Ketchum, current county board chairman, chaired the board’s Finance Committee in 2011. At a July committee meeting, Ketchum supported wage freezes for 2012.
Here is his comment from July 2011: “We’ll draw a line in the sand next year. We’ll argue with everyone,” he said, referring to union negotiations.
However, since Ketchum became chairman of the full board in December, his pledge of budgetary restraint has gone unfulfilled.
In December, the board approved a 3-year contract with employees of the county clerk’s and treasurer’s offices that includes annual raises of $1,000, $750, and $1,000, respectively.
This week, the board approved the same annual raises for nonunion workers in the county highway department. Union workers will receive 2 percent annual raises for the next 3 years.
Sheriff’s employees will wait until next month for their contract to be approved. If the wave of pay increases continues, they’ll get more money, too.
The board also approved the hiring of another road deputy ($40,500 salary a year, $23,300 in benefits, for a total cost of $63,800) and awarded a $31,500 stipend to the public defender – totaling $95,300 in additional spending.
Members rationalized that extra spending because new State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller chose not to spend $100,000 that the board had allocated last fall, at then-State’s Attorney Henry Dixon’s request, for two new employees that he absolutely could not live without. Sacco-Miller said she doesn’t need them.
Their rationalization is fueled by an irrational exuberance, which was demonstrated when many members applauded after the board approved the new deputy position – a position that board members fully recognize will likely be eliminated when fiscal reality smacks them in the face next year.
The Lee County Board had the chance to rein in spending to more closely match its revenues. Members talked about it openly 2 years ago, but they just can’t bring themselves to stop spending more money, despite their own predictions of financial calamity ahead.
Diogenes isn’t around to search for fiscal responsibility in Lee County elected officials, but thousands of taxpayers are. It’s up to them to insist that the county stop spending more money than it receives.