At least four of the Franklin County Fiscal Court magistrates are concerned about the 2020-21 fiscal year budget.

During a special meeting of the court on Thursday to discuss next fiscal year’s budget, County Treasurer Susan Laurenson suggested the court pass a near continuation of the budget, which means the 2020-21 fiscal year budget would be almost the same as the 2019-20 fiscal year budget aside from a $2,158 increase.

The current fiscal year's budget for the county is $27,863,014.

Laurenson reported that the road department, sheriff’s office, fire department and jail are looking to see a combined $7 million deficit. To balance the budget, funds will be transferred from the general fund to the appropriate departments.

While the COVID-19 crisis will have a negative impact on the county’s revenue, Laurenson said the county has exceeded revenue expectations for payroll and insurance tax revenue in the last quarter.

Wells reiterated that the county won’t know the full impact of COVID-19 until the end of this quarter on June 30.

Wells said county officials expect no matter the outcome, the court will have to reevaluate the budget in July after it's passed and the new fiscal year begins.

To prepare for a decrease in revenue due to COVID-19, Wells said the county is already in a hiring freeze.

Laurenson also made a couple of suggestions of how the court can generate new revenue.

One is to increase service fees for planning and zoning. Another is for the county to start charging residents for trash collection.

“Folks, we’ve got the biggest elephant in the room that we have every year and it's shaped like a big red garbage can,” Laurenson said. “Let’s get real here. Once you get to that line item, you see $1.5 million (expense) with zero revenue attached to it.”

Laurenson said trash collection is a service that’s not a government service obligation, like the jail.

As the meeting was coming to a close, several magistrates expressed their concern about the proposed budget.

“I think it would be irresponsible to pass a continuation budget, knowing that revenues are going to be significantly impacted by the pandemic,” Magistrate Scotty Tracy said.

Magistrate Michael Mueller agreed.

“I don’t understand how, when we know revenue is going to be down, we’re going to increase it $2,158,” Mueller said. “I just have a lot of concerns.”

Magistrate J.W. Blackburn said he had concerns as well.

“One of (my concerns) is the fact I feel like the magistrates are put in the position where we have to try to make it work,” Blackburn said. “And I would feel more comfortable if department heads took a harder look and gave us something a little closer to the reality that we’re going to be dealing with than us trying to micromanage their budgets.”

Wells said the department heads have made their cuts.

“The reason I suggested a continuation budget was because I didn’t want any more expenses,” Wells said. “I’m sorry it's $2,000 more than last year, but there are a lot of expenses that come about, so $2,000 is pretty doggone close to what it was last year. We can adopt it, we can change it. That’s fine. That’s your prerogative.”

Wells added that the revenue projections for the final quarter of this fiscal year are unknown and “you can’t cut when you don’t know” and those decisions will have to come in July.

Magistrate Sherry Sebastian said it is easier to add revenue back into the budget than to make cuts later.

“We have made cuts,” Wells responded. “There have been a lot of cuts, and that’s why I recommended a continuation budget. As a matter of fact, when I said this back in March, you all thought that was a good idea and that’s where we are.”

Wells said he’s done his job in presenting a budget. He instructed the magistrates to come up with what cuts they want to see on their own and present those ideas at another special meeting to discuss the budget.

Wells requested that magistrates don’t suggest a 15% decrease across the board, because there are some expenses in the budget that are required by law, such as setting money aside for juvenile detention services.

“The bottom line here is that we can’t afford to not pass a budget,” Wells said. “If there are four of you that are strongly against this budget, then I leave it to you to cut it how you want. I’ve done my job of presenting to you as good of a budget as I can under the circumstances.”

Wells reminded the court the circumstances are unknown.

“We know it’s not going to be as good as it was, but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Wells said.

The next county budget meeting will be Wednesday at 1 p.m.

It will be streamed on the Franklin County Fiscal Court Facebook page at facebook.com/fcfcky

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