Benton County officials eye turnback money

Posted: November 23, 2017 at 1:05 a.m.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials have all but completed the 2018 budget, but spending decisions still have to be made, including how best to use a projected $1.5 million to $2 million in turnback money.

Justices of the peace have put off decisions on how to pay for a $25 million courts building and officials are studying proposals for a $3.7 million emergency radio system.

County budget

Benton County’s Justices of the peace will meet at 6 p.m. Monday in the Quorum Courtroom in the County Administration Building to review the county’s 2018 budget. The Budget Committee will send the budget on to the Finance Committee. The county is required to approve a budget on or before Dec. 31.

Source: Staff report

The Quorum Court recently approved spending about $2.4 million on voting equipment, with repayment set to begin in 2019. Borrowing the money needed or issuing bonds to cover the cost of the radio system and courts building has been discussed, as has a temporary sales tax, but no decision made.

The justices of the peace have said they will spend some of the reserve, which Comptroller Brenda Guenther projected at $20 million, with $19 million in the general fund and $1 million in the road fund, which must be spent on roads and related costs.

Guenther said state law requires Benton County set aside 10 percent of its budget -- about $7 million a year-- for emergencies, leaving $12 million to $13 million available for projects such as the courts building and other "big-ticket" items.

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee, said the turnback money has been used in the past to build up the reserve, but with a project as large as a $25 million courts building, the reserve is likely to shrink instead of grow.

"Typically we've been setting that money aside in either the general fund reserve or the capital projects reserve, which we use for bigger capital projects like bridges or major building maintenance, typically one-time expenses," Allen said.

Allen said he has considered how best to use the leftover money the county receives when each year's budget is closed out in the spring. Guenther said the county usually spends about 95 percent of what is budgeted, leaving $1.5 million to $2 million in turnback.

Allen said the justices of the peace need to consider if the budget can be trimmed, if the turnback is consistently found in the same budget line items, or if it should be considered as a source of money to offset some of the expected costs of a bond issue or financing purchases.

"I'm betting that money is pretty consistent," Allen said. "To me, that's where we need to look at cutting the budget. I plan to ask Brenda to identify the sources. We always have it."

Kurt Moore, justice of the peace for District 13, said the turnback money isn't something he wants to include in the normal budget process because it can fluctuate. Guenther said the turnback was offset in 2013 and 2015 by storm damage costs the county had to pay up front and wait for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Moore said the money can still be used for the courts building, to cover architectural and engineering fees next year, for example.

"You couldn't use the turnback itself to cover bond payments since that has to be a dedicated revenue source," Moore said. "But it would offset some of these cuts we might otherwise have to make if we paid for the bond issue out of money from fines and fees. It would also mean we would not be building up our reserves. The turnback might not make up for the revenue lost in bonding the cost of the courts building but, at present, it would be pretty close to offsetting the radio and voting machines. That's certainly an option."

Pat Adams, justice of the peace for District 6, said he would rather see the turnback used by the departments it was originally budgeted for if the department needs the money. Adams said the county doesn't need to grow its reserve fund.

"I'm a firm believer that that money has been saved for long enough," Adams said. "It needs to be used on one of those big-ticket items, the courts building, election equipment or the radio system. It's not our money. It's the taxpayers' money and it needs to be spent providing the services the people of the county need."

Joel Jones, justice of the peace for District 7, said the Quorum Court needs to have a meeting or a series of meetings early in 2018 to consider the county's needs and settle the spending questions. Jones argued for making those decisions beginning with the 2018 budget but was unsuccessful.

"There doesn't seen to be a heavy desire to significantly cut this budget to save money for those things," Jones said. "We're going to have to have some single-topic meetings starting in January to discuss how do we finance the courts building. We really need to start getting our heads around what the numbers are and where can we save some money."

NW News on 11/23/2017