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Tough road ahead for council, county employees

The Harrison County Council has a difficult job ahead of it. Creating the county budget is not an easy objective any year, but, when advised to cut the entire county general budget by 5 percent, it becomes even more of a daunting task.
That’s what the council is facing this August, as financial adviser Frank Cummings relayed the ‘sobering news,’ as council chair Chris Timberlake put it, to the council about the prospective revenue numbers.
Last year, Cummings advised the council not to increase the county general budget by more than 1 percent, or about $100,000.
The general fund is not, however, the only funding source for the county; it also has riverboat gaming funds and local option taxes CEDIT and CAGIT.
Through the recession of the last few years, the county’s budget has not taken a hit like the private sector. Now, it seems the tough economy is catching up. Schools are having an extremely tough time holding staff members, and tax revenue has fallen enough to cause even a riverboat county like ours to possibly make cuts.
Riverboat funds will be used in the budget, to the tune of about $13 million or so. But the general fund, which is what may be cut, is where most county employee salaries and everyday office expenses are found. Last year, the county general budget totaled about $8.9 million.
The council needs to stand strong and show the public that it’s serious about the financial situation. When many people were struggling just to keep their jobs, Harrison County employees were fortunate enough to continue to see an increase in pay. Obviously, raises are not in order this year. The council may even find that cuts will be necessary to get under the recommended budget estimate.
Hopefully, by August, Cummings won’t see quite as dismal a proposition. Last year, his initial assessment was no increase across the board, but then said a 1-percent raise could be afforded. The same thing could happen this year, as Cummings already hinted in a letter to the council that a 4-percent decrease could work.
In August, the council will hear each department head plead his or her case for funding before it determines the 2011 budget. With the county already in the process of a $15 million building project for its employees, the council needs to show the public it can hold the line on spending.