Budget process irritates some county commissioners

December 21, 2009
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The budgeting process could become an issue for some Kent County commissioners when board members fill the commission’s leadership posts in a few weeks.

A handful of commissioners expressed some vivid frustration and disappointment in not being able to amend the county’s general fund last week because the process doesn’t allow for such changes when the commission meets to adopt the coming year’s spending plans.

Commissioner Keith Courtade wanted the board to dig into the $22 million emergency reserve fund for $1.5 million and allocate those dollars to the Sheriff’s Department to stop 33 employees in that department from being laid off next week.

Courtade also wanted to take $143,000 from the lapse account, which has been estimated at $2 million for the 2010 fiscal year, to restore two management positions at the county.

“The rainy day is here folks. It’s time to reach into the reserves to save jobs,” he said.

But both motions to the general fund were ruled out-of-order by Commission Chairman Roger Morgan, and his rulings were backed by the board’s razor-slim 10-9 votes.

Neither the rulings nor the votes, however, sat very well with some members.

“The information I received is these amendments were OK,” said Commissioner Stan Ponstein.

Commissioner Brandon Dillon said he only learned that amendments to the budget violated the rules at the 11th hour. “I don’t think anybody knew until last night that there would be a shutdown on amendments,” he said.

But Commissioner Harold Voorhees said fellow board members were given every opportunity to talk about any general-fund budget issue at the Finance Committee meetings that were held for the past two months. Voorhees is on that committee, which recommended on Dec. 1 that the commission adopt the spending plan as is.

“We tried in every way to encourage everyone to get involved in the process. There is still a process in place, and the budget can be amended at a future date,” said Commissioner Dean Agee, who chairs the Finance Committee and who called Courtade’s amendments “interesting.”

“We can attend the Finance Committee meetings, but we can’t vote,” countered Dillon, who isn’t on the committee.

Commissioner Bill Hirsch said he ran for office to change the way the county operates. However, by the board’s budget action, he said he sees that nothing has changed. He called for some new blood to move into the county’s leadership posts next year.

“The current budget is too harsh. I do think we have enough money to be a bit compassionate,” said Commissioner Bob Synk.

The county will eliminate 145 positions Dec. 31, when the current fiscal year ends. Forty of those are vacant; the reduction means the equivalent of about 80 full-time employees will be let go.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski said he was disappointed that the unions didn’t take voluntary pay cuts or give up pay increases that go into effect Jan. 1, the day the new fiscal year starts, to save some jobs at the county. Most of the county’s workers belong to a bargaining unit and many are to receive a 2.25 percent wage hike for next year.

“I’m a little disappointed the union didn’t step forward a few weeks ago,” said Bulkowski, who sits on the Finance Committee. “It’s not an easy budget to support, but a lot of thought went into it.”

Appropriations from the general fund total $167.7 million for 2010, while revenues to it are expected to be $165 million — leaving the account $2.7 million short. But that deficit will grow by another $275,000 because the commission approved that amount for the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program and it wasn’t included in the general-fund budget adopted last week.

The board also adopted six other budgets at last week’s meeting. Ponstein, Courtade, Hirsch and Synk went through the county’s budget process for the first time, as did Tom Antor and Pete Hickey.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said work on the 2011 budget for the general fund will begin next month. He will have a new fiscal services director to work with as Stephen Duarte, the department’s deputy director, replaces Robert White. White held the post for seven years and retired from the county on Friday.

The preliminary shortfall for the 2011 general fund hovers around $16 million. That likely means the county will be looking at more job cuts during the year.

Commissioners will choose new leaders Jan. 5. Commission Vice Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish has said that if she is elected, she will accept the top post. After four years at the helm, Morgan announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t seek a fifth year and that he supports Parrish as commission chairwoman.

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