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Jackson County officials keep eyes on the budget
Cost saving measures may help offset losses
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JEFFERSON — Like Hall County and other municipalities across the state, Jackson County is watching carefully as sales tax collections come in for the last months of 2008.

The local option sales tax is a 1 percent sales tax levied to fund general government operations. The revenue brought in from LOST is one of the county’s main funding mechanisms, said Finance Director John Hulsey.

"The LOST is the second-most significant source of revenue to the county’s general fund. Therefore, if these collections fall short of our budget expectations, it is imperative that we move quickly to amend our budget," Hulsey said.

"While we do not have the November ’08 and December ’08 numbers on LOST, we anticipate that we will be below budget estimates by approximately $431,000."

Gainesville estimates its LOST collections to be $500,000 to $600,000 under budget for 2008, while Hall County said collections could be as much as $3.5 million under. Both municipalities depend upon LOST collections to fund about one-fourth of operating expenses.

The sales tax collections must go through the state Department of Revenue before counties get the money. That causes a two-month lag between when revenues are generated and when they are distributed by the state. County finance departments across the state now have the collections up to October 2008 and will receive November and December’s collections at the end of January and February.

For Jackson County, October 2008’s collections totaled $477,119.48 — an 11.57 percent drop compared to October 2007’s $539,572.41. total.

Jackson County has been conservative in predicting sales tax collections for the last two months of 2008 and the collections to come in the first six months of 2009, Hulsey said. In fact, the county commission may consider a change to the 2009 budget in the coming months to lower the predicted sales tax collections.

"Our initial budgeted sales tax goal for FY09 was the same as in the previous fiscal year, $6,297,000," Hulsey said. "However, we will be reducing that amount by approximately $561,000 to $5,736,000, of course, pending board approval. This should be more realistic in terms of our current collections."

Hulsey said the county has put measures in place to ensure the county government would be ready to deal with any deficits should a budget crisis arise.

"That is why we called for a 10 percent reduction in the operating budget at the outset of FY09," he said, which totals $561,130 to date.

This reduction encompasses a variety of expenditures in county operating budgets, such as travel costs, books and periodicals and expendable equipment, he said. It would not affect salaries and benefits for county employees, maintenance contracts or operating leases due to contractual obligations.

Departments have also looked into saving money through making their operations more efficient, Hulsey said.

Gainesville and Hall County governments have made similar budget cuts.

Other than cutting more operation costs, Jackson has several options should the economy worsen in 2009, Hulsey said.

These include eliminating the Pay for Performance Plan, an incentive program that gives merit increases in pay based on employees’ performance, and cutting department budgets "where there would be the least impact to the citizen in terms of demand for services," he said.

"Lastly, we would have to begin to implement a furlough. Of course, at present we have a hiring freeze in place and are only hiring those positions of a public safety sensitive nature," Hulsey said.

Jackson County wouldn’t be the first — Hall County has already implemented furlough days each month to deal with budget shortfalls, and Barrow County has considered furlough days and shorter work weeks for county employees. Gainesville also has told city employees they may have to wait a year for raises.

Times reporter Ashley Fielding contributed to this story.