2014 County Budget Passes but Takes Two Separate Votes
By Connie Las Schneider
Thursday’s Quorum Court started on a holiday note as Quorum Court members and county officials had a pleasant dinner at the Ozark Area Senior Citizen’s facility. However, lines were soon drawn as the meeting escalated into procedural bickering and a verbal sword-fight over 2014 budget additions for extra part-time help; despite no raises for regular county employees.
Ironically it finally took two separate votes to pass the 2014 budget. Before the first vote was taken, the wording of the budget ordinance was challenged. Originally presented as a General Ordinance, which would require three separate readings and three separate votes of 5/4 to pass, Justice Mary Jane Cains questioned if the budget could be passed at the meeting as written.
County Attorney Jim Mainard gave the opinion that the Budget Ordinance is an Appropriation Ordinance by statute since appropriations for each budget was the sole purpose of the ordinance. The bill was therefore designated to an Appropriation Ordinance. As an Appropriation Ordinance, the budget could be read in an abbreviated format and passed the same night by a six vote 2/3’s majority.
Additional part time funds in three departments were also questioned before the first vote. Justice Garrett Shepherd said he did not think it fair that while the county failed to give raises to county employees due to budget constraints, the three budgets in question included additional part-time help totaling $8,339. Shepherd identified these three department budgets as the Treasurer $3000, Circuit Clerk $4000 and Collector $1339. Sheperd said the Collector budget was not an increase but since the Collector also had $2000 available in her automated County General fund for part-time hiring, the $1,339 which came from the County General fund was not needed.
While the three department heads who had their budgets questioned were able to fill out their own budgets since they were involved with the actual budget preparation process, those prepared by departments outside of the County building were told not to fill out their payroll requests (and part-time budgets) so no increases were included in these budgets, said Cains.
Mainard answered that he had no knowledge of such a letter being sent out and the subject was dropped. However, Cains later produced a copy of a memo had been sent out from the County Clerk’s office requesting department heads not fill out the payroll lines in their budgets. Since the County Clerk’s office is responsible for county payroll preparation, this procedure was not questioned.
Despite the allegations, no changes were made to the three budget lines in question during the first vote.
County Clerk, DeAnna Schmalz, later said she was also completely unaware that this memo had been sent, but later found the memo and said the letter was the same as had been sent out every year since Cains was head of the Quorum Court Budget Committee.
The first Vote
During the vote without budget changes, the budget Ordinance was voted on as an Appropriation Ordinance, with five Justices in favor and four against. Since an Appropriation Ordinance requires 6 yes votes for passage, the budget did not pass.
Voting yes on the first vote were Justices Lacey Neissl, Rusty Cagle, David Bowles, Freddy Ree and Paul Schaffer. No votes included Cains, Shepherd, David Hewitt and Chad Haberer.
The second Vote
Later in the meeting it was pointed out that the county would “have to shut its doors on January 1st” if a budget wasn’t agreed upon. Mainard also stressed that the state law clearly stipulates that the Quorum Court must pass next year’s budget before the end of their fiscal year.
The budget was subsequently revised in a compromise solution so the additional part time budgets in question were reduced by ½ except for the Collector budget which had added no additional money to last year’s part- time line. With these changes, the second vote passed 8/1, so the 2014 budget finally passed. Cains cast the only dissenting vote.
Two other Appropriation Ordinances also passed unanimously 9/0, but not before clarification of some key wording was made. All Justices were present.
2014 Budget Ordinance Details
The 2014 budget has been a point of contention since it was first discussed in September and was the subject of much discussion over the past several months. The root problem of the continued budget drama may have started three years ago when the long running Quorum Court Budget Committee was disbanded so only elected county officials prepared the next year’s budget.
Although the Budget Committee presented an ordinance in September to legally reinstate the Court’s three-person Budget Committee since the Quorum Court is legally responsible for the budget, that ordinance was voted down. Judge Janet Powell then made a compromise decision to include all Justices in the yearly budget process so each Justice was given a department budget to inspect and report their finding to the Court.
Then at the he November meeting, the 2014 budget was added to the agenda during the meeting for a vote, but Justices decided to postpone that vote to the next regular meeting in December at the Senior Citizen Center.
This brings us to this Thursday’s meeting. Some county officials hoped it would be a short meeting and said as much, but the mood soon escalated as the budget vote came up. Most vocal in this discussion was Mainard and Justice Rusty Cagle on the budget as/is side and Justices Garrett Shepherd and Mary Jane Cains on revising the budget and following legal procedure for approving ordinances.
The budget was declared an Appropriation Ordinance but did not get the six yes votes needed to ratify the Ordinance. This defeat caused some county officials to warn that the county would have to shut down on January 1st, in the same way the federal government shut down recently, if the budget was not passed immediately.
Circuit Clerk Wilma Brushwood offered to remove funds in her additional part time line and a compromise suggestion was made by 911 Coordinator Randy Boren and supported by Cagle to cut in half the amounts budgeted for part-time additional help in the three departments.
Justices approved that change and voted 8/1 to adopt the modified 2014 budget with the stipulation that the additional part-time funding be cut in half.
The Court unanimously passed two Appropriation Ordinances after more debate which resulted in wording changes and budget item reclassifications.
Appropriation Ordinance 2013-27 appropriated $91,000 in the 2013 budget to Unappropriated EMS funds.
Appropriation Ordinance 2013-28 distributes $64,480.73 in FEMA funds Disaster 4000 (tornado) which will be distributed among the Altus and Etna Rural Fire Departments.
County Judge Janet Powell also announced that Franklin County will be dealing with another FEMA disaster after last week’s storm disaster. Franklin County is included in AR counties declared disasters because of ice storm Cleon. Powell said FEMA officials and state agencies would start meeting with county officials on Friday to begin accessing damage in the county.
While on the agenda, a discussion on the county’s Personnel Policy was tabled to the January 2014 meeting.