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Jackson County OKs budget, tax rates
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JEFFERSON — The Jackson County Commission approved its 2010 budget and millage rates Thursday, but not without debating the county’s decision to forego funding the 401(a) Defined Contribution Retirement program for employees.

In at 4-1 vote, the commission approved the $66.4 million 2010 budget and millage rates: 9.50 mills for the incorporated areas and 8.61 mills for the unincorporated parts of the county. One mill equals $1 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The vote comes after several called meetings with the commission and finance department working to offset the estimated $3.35 million shortfall that had been in the 2010 budget.

County Finance Director John Hulsey and staff worked with the commission to find ways to cut costs, including implementing one furlough day a month for the
remainder of 2009 and one each month next year and eliminating funding for matching contributions to the 401a Defined Contribution Retirement program. These two measures saved the county an estimated $781,440 and $690,105, respectively.

Hulsey said his department was able to balance the budget without dipping into the county’s reserves. But Commissioners Tom Crow and Dwain Smith said the county should use some of those reserves to reinstate funding for the retirement program.

"Our county employees are our front line defense so to speak, and we’re hitting them with a double whammy," Smith said about the two cost-saving measures. "I’ve only had one complaint about the furlough days but I’ve heard several complaints on the retirement matching funds. I just wish we could do something about it."

"I don’t see it (the economy) picking up for a couple of years but we’ve got $8 million in the budget for a rainy day. If we reinstate those two things it’s a little over a million that would surely carry us until that time."

But Commission Chairman Hunter Bicknell said the county should keep an eye on the economy before deciding how to expend the reserves.

"I think that since ... staff has developed a budget and in order to balance it we would take the step of suspending those contributions, I would be in favor of continuing in that direction until we had results from the third quarter and saw how the fourth quarter was going," he said.

"I really think that we’re looking at economic times where we spend $600,000-$700,000 from our reserves to continue those contributions in 2010, we’d be in the situation of having to take the same action in 2011 if the economy does not pick up."

Hulsey also assured the commission that Thursday’s vote would lock in the millage rate, but the budget can be amended in the future if the commission wants to use its reserves.

"The budget is a fluid document. We need to adopt the budget today so we can go ahead and set a millage and tax levy, but then certainly the budget is something that can be revisited between now and the beginning of the year and adjust it as you see fit," Hulsey said.

The funding for the retirement program won’t be cut off until Jan. 1, leaving the commission a few months to decide if this should be changed before it takes effect.

Hulsey also said there are policies in place that determine when and how much money can be taken from reserves, and changing that balance could impact the county’s credit rating, Hulsey said.

"It (the reserve balance) is a measure of the county’s ability to continue to weather changes in the economy, and it’s a measure of our fiscal stewardship and responsibility," he said.

Commissioner Bruce Yates made a motion to adopt the budget and millage rates, which passed with the 4-1 vote. Yates, Smith, Bicknell and Hardy voted in favor and Crow voted against.