Washington County budget fails at Quorum Court, $5 million gap remains

Posted: November 17, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Washington County residents wait for the Quorum Court to decide whether to raise the property tax rate and pass the 2018 budget during the regular meeting Thursday at the quorum courtroom at the courthouse. The budget failed. The millage rate will remain at 3.9 mills, justices of the peace decided.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Washington County Quorum Court failed Thursday to pass a budget, decided against raising property taxes and failed to make significant cuts to stop a $5 million gap between spending and revenue.

The Budget Committee chairwoman then resigned her chair position.

Budget fails

The Washington County Quorum Court failed to pass a 2018 budget during its meeting Thursday. The vote was reconsidered but the budget failed again. Justices of the peace Joseph Kieklak, Daniel Balls, Ann Harbison, Sue Madison, Eva Madison, all Democrats, and Bill Ussery and Fred Rausch, both Republicans, voted for an amended budget that cut one position. Justice of the Peace Joel Maxwell, a Republican, was absent. Justices of the peace voting against the budget were Republicans Tom Lundstrum, Harvey Bowman, Joe Patterson, Lisa Ecke, Alicia Deavens, Robert Dennis and Butch Pond.

Source: Staff report

"I feel like I completely failed at this budget process," said Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a Democrat representing northeastern Fayetteville.

Justice of the Peace Bill Ussery, a Republican representing northeastern Springdale, will be chairman of the Budget Committee. Madison had been working on the budget, collecting information and meeting with elected officials for months, but the budget wasn't where it needed to be, justices of the peace said.

"We've not come together with a budget that's got any future," said Justice of the Peace Butch Pond, a Republican representing eastern Washington County. "We don't have a budget that the county can survive with. We are taking out more than what we are bringing in."

Justices of the peace continue to struggle with how to cut spending or to raise revenue and stop a $5 million gap between spending and expected revenue next year. The budget has also grown by $2 million over last year to nearly $69 million proposed for next year.

The proposed budget -- amended to omit one maintenance position under the county judge -- failed to pass twice during the meeting. Ussery said he expects to call a special meeting to work out why justices of the peace failed the budget.

A budget must be passed by Dec. 31.

"We've not made any significant cuts," Pond said. "We've got so many people pushing not to increase the millage."

Three residents spoke against a proposal to raise the property tax by 0.5 mills to 4.4 mills. The move would put the millage back up to where it was in 2011 and raise $1.6 million for next year.

Raising property taxes to 4.4 mills would have raised taxes on property about as much as going out to one meal, Pond said. For example, a Winslow homeowner with a $100,000 home in Winslow would have paid about $10 more per year, or $942, according to the County Tax Collector's Office.

The millage rate hasn't been raised since 2001, said Justice of the Peace Daniel Balls, a Democrat representing northern Fayetteville.

"It costs money to run the county," Balls said.

Meanwhile, the county's savings have shrunk yearly. Money held in reserve was $11 million in 2011 but down to $6 million this year. The county plans to spend another $2 million this year to cover costs at the jail. That would bring reserve not dedicated to any particular expense to about $4 million.

"You got to cut services or you have to put that millage back," Pond said. "We've done nothing but reduce reserves every year since we cut that millage."

Justices of the peace couldn't agree on what to cut.

A motion to shave $1 million from the county jail and Sheriff's Office combined budgets failed. Another proposal to cut half of a percent from the proposed employee 3.5 percent pay raise failed. The reduced pay raise would have saved the county about $140,000, Comptroller Ashley Farber said.

"Law enforcement is one of the most important things that the county does. It's also one of the most expensive," Madison said. "I'm just really troubled that we have chosen to start (cuts) with our Sheriff's Office and our employees -- that's not sending a great message."

Justices of the peace also couldn't agree on other adjustments to the budget. For example, the Quorum Court failed to move $100,000 cut from Ozark Regional Transit into the general fund from the Road Department.

The Budget Committee must meet soon and review the budget again, Ussery said. That means justices of the peace could do some line-by-line reviews to make cuts, he said.

"We're going to just start kicking over all the rocks," Ussery said.

NW News on 11/17/2017