Benton County officials review 2018 spending

Posted: October 31, 2017 at 1 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette File Photo/BEN GOFF The Benton County Courthouse on the Bentonville square.
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NWA Democrat-Gazette File Photo/BEN GOFF The Benton County Courthouse on the Bentonville square.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's justices of the peace on Monday started looking for ways to cut $3 million from budget requests for next year, but also agreed to consider increasing initial revenue projections.

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and committee chairman, said he wants the budget to be as tight as possible but to accurately reflect the money the county takes in.

What’s next

Benton County’s justices of the peace will resume work on the 2018 budget on Thursday, immediately after the Finance Committee meeting, which is set for 6 p.m. in the Quorum Courtroom in the County Administration Building, 215 E. Central Ave.

"If you know you're going to get some money, it's part of good money management to use that wisely," Allen said.

Brenda Guenther, comptroller, said her most recent estimate shows the property tax revenue growing by about 7 percent next year while the budget is based on projections for 4 percent growth. Guenther also said the sales tax revenue for 2018 is projected to be $8.75 million, the sames as was budgeted in 2017 even though the county expects to take in about $8.9 million this year. Allen said both revenue estimates should be increased.

"I think we should start there before we start cutting," Allen said.

Joel Edwards, justice of the peace for District 15, cautioned the county could have to change the way it has operated in years past, when additional revenue allowed adjustments to the budget.

"If we get too aggressive on revenue now we lose the luxury of mid-year adjustments," Edwards said. "We get a surplus because we're understating."

Mike McKenzie, justice of the peace for District 1, agreed with Allen.

"I'm not a fan of midyear changes," McKenzie said. "I think it's more appropriate to hit it as close as we can and budget for that."

The justices of the peace also went through requests for personnel and capital equipment, with Allen providing a list of possible cuts as a starting point. The county has about $3.35 million more in projected revenue than it does in operating costs for 2018, according to Guenther. Elected officials and department heads also submitted requests for employee raises, new personnel and equipment taking the budget from that $3.35 million surplus to a deficit of about $3 million if fully funded.

With the cuts discussed Monday the deficit was cut to about $1.4 million, according to Joel Jones, justice of the peace. Jones estimate didn't include the possible increases in revenue or the shift of about $500,000 for voting equipment from the 2018 budget to 2019. Guenther said if the county finances buying the voting machines after the first of next year no payment would be due before 2019.

The committee was also briefed on money the county has been spending on agencies focused on issues ranging from animal control to water quality.

According to officials, Benton County's 2017 budget included $185,000 for the Cooperative Extension Service; $45,000 for the Humane Society for Animals; $34,000 for the Washington County HIV Clinic; $24,000 for Ozark Regional Transit; $20,000 for the Illinois River Watershed Partnership; and $5,000 for the Conservation Service.

The committee agreed to ask the entities seeking money to provide them with more information about their needs.

The justices of the peace also discussed the proposed courts building, with Pat Adams, justices of the peace for District 6, pressing for a one-year, 1 percent sales tax to pay for the $20 million to $25 million project. Paying for the project by a bond issue repaid by using court fines fees and forfeitures was also mentioned. Guenther said those sources provide the county about $1.1 million a year. Allen said the annual debt service on a bond issue for the project could be about from $1 million to $1.5 million.

Adams said he doesn't want to see the county take on the long-term debt needed to pay for the project through a bond issue.

"With the 1 percent sales tax it's paid for in one year," Adams said. "We don't want to underestimate the citizens of Benton County. With the one-and-done it's a one-year project."

County Judge Barry Moehring said getting voter approval is required for a sales tax and he sees obstacles. Moehring said another 1 percent sales tax would push the total sales tax in many cities above 10 percent and Arkansas already has the fourth-highest sales tax rate in the country.

Allen said the chance for voters rejecting a sales tax increase has to be considered.

"What if it doesn't pass? What do we do then?" Allen asked.

The committee made no decisions Monday and will resume their work Thursday.

NW News on 10/31/2017