Benton County officials look to balance budget

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1:05 a.m.

BENTONVILLE -- Having heard funding requests from elected officials, Benton County's justices of the peace are faced with cutting more than $3 million to balance the 2018 budget.

"I've said all along we don't have a $4 million surplus, we have a $3 million deficit," Joel Jones, justice of the peace for District 7, representing the north central part of Benton County, said Friday. The Budget Committee will meet again Monday to continue work on the budget.

County budget

Benton County’s justices of the peace have several meetings set to work on the 2018 budget. The next budget session is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Monday in the Quorum Courtroom in the County Administration Building, 215 E. Central Ave. The Budget Committee will also meet Thursday after the Finance Committee meeting, which begins at 6 p.m.

Source: Staff report

Jones said the justices of the peace will need to look beyond 2018 even as they work on next year's budget.

"We need to remember that the $3 million in requests we have now doesn't include saving money for the courts building or a new radio system," he said. "Both of those are multi-million dollar projects. If there's no new revenue that money has got to come from our existing budget, whether it's general fund, reserves or something like fine, fees and forfeitures. We need to at least start coming up with that now."

The county has been working on plans for a courts building for several years. The county is working on a building on Second Street in downtown Bentonville with an estimated cost in the range of $25 million. Sheriff Shawn Holloway has told the justices of the peace his department is studying proposals for a new radio system and said the cost could go as high as $3 million.

Brenda Guenther, comptroller, has calculated the revenue for 2018 will cover 2018 operating budgets and still leave about $3.4 million for other needs. The estimates excess was about $4.4 million when the budget process began but the justices of the peace have approved spending money for voting equipment and other items to reduce the surplus to $3.4 million.

According to Guenther, the justices of the peace still have to consider requested raises for employees, new positions and reorganizations in county offices, plus capital requests. She said a 1 percent raise for employees will cost about $242,000 from the general fund.

County Judge Barry Moehring has said he would like to see employees receive 3 percent raises costing about $750,000. New positions to be considered by the justices of the peace carry a price tag of almost $1.1 million, with the Sheriff's Office and Jail making up the biggest part of that. Holloway has asked for eight field deputies, eight jailers and two transport deputies with a cost of more than $900,000.

According to Guenther's calculations, the county could cover those personnel requests and still have almost $1.4 million available. She said the list of capital request from general fund accounts total about $1.75 million and requests from the road fund come to about $2.8 million. With those requests included, the justices of the peace would have to find another $3.1 million to cover all of the requests, she said.

Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace for District 10, representing much of Bella Vista, said she's concerned about the scope of the requests for money exceeding available revenue. She said the Quorum Court could consider asking elected officials and department heads to cut their operating budget requests to free money for some of the larger needs, such as the courts building. Jones also mentioned cutbacks, estimated each 1 percent cut in the operating budget will free about $500,000.

"I do think there are areas that can be cut," Chiocco said. "There are always little things that add up."

Moehring agrees with Jones the justices of the peace need to keep future needs -- including the courts building and the radio system -- in mind while considering the 2018 budget. Moehring said he worked to reduce the budgets of the departments under his office from 2017 levels and found nearly $1 million in cuts with a goal of having the savings earmarked for the courts building. He also acknowledged the justices of the peace have to consider all of the demands on the county's available money.

"They've got to look at a bigger picture than I do," Moehring said. "I've said all year I plan to cut our budget and make money available for the courts facility. The Quorum Court then has to decide if that's their priority. If not, I'll understand and respect that. But then they will still be on the hook for figuring out how to pay for a courts facility. I've operated in 2017 under the belief that, collectively, we believe the courts facility is a very high priority."

NW News on 10/29/2017