The recession may have ended in 2009, but Portage County, like other local governments, is struggling with flat revenues and rising expenses.
Todd Bragg, commissioners' budget director, said he's begun the 2014 budget planning. During the past five years, he noted revenues first fell in 2008-09 with the recession. Then the county was hit by state cuts in Local Government Funds in 2010-11, and revenues, including money from earned interest on county investments, have been flat for the past two years.
To keep next year's spending at the same level as this year, Bragg said the county would need to carry over $4.75 million. That's more than $1.3 million higher than any carryover in the past three years.
"We have never had that and I don't think we will," Bragg told commissioners. He said he is expecting about $4.5 million in cash carryover. But that will depend on what additional expenses the board approves this year. The board has already tapped out its contingency fund and has about another $500,000 in unfunded requests at this point.
Commissioner Maureen Frederick said the board might consider sending out a letter to other elected officials asking them to not fill vacant jobs. "We haven't asked. If we're going to we should do it fairly soon," she said.
Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio said the board has to change how it looks at the budget. "We can't use last year's budget as a starting point," she said. "We have to investigate each department budget in depth."
This year's budget is so tight, commissioners may reconsider the board's policy of buying back unused sick leave from county employees. The policy is an incentive for workers to not build up massive amounts of sick leave that the board would have to buy back at retirement.
"Yes, I'd like to consider it if it's essential," Frederick said. Marsilio objected to a late change of plans.
"I don't think you do people like that," she said, after people may have counted on selling back some of their unused sick leave. The two-year-old policy allows employees to turn back sick leave just one time each fall.
Frederick said she's "thinking about the next person who comes in and says, 'I need [money] immediately.' I'm sure they'd [employees] rather have a job than money for the holidays."
The board is to discuss the issue this week.
Under the "accrued sick leave conversion" policy, employees can convert one-third of their unused sick leave, up to 120 hours, at 80 percent of their hourly rate. Employees must keep a minimum of two years' worth (240 hours) of accrued sick leave.
There's $100,000 set aside for the buy back. Bragg estimated $35,000 might be needed, more than double what was paid out in the first year of the policy.
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