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At first, there seemed to be hope. The team had been working hard, at least it seemed so, so why not believe they could pull it off and surprise everyone?

But when it was time for results, the Washington County Quorum Court fumbled.

What? Did you think I was talking about the Razorbacks?

Oh, I went to that game Saturday, too. My wife and I joined a few thousand hard-core Hog fans who braved the cold and wet weather to pull for an unlikely victory. And it was a fun game, until the last 17 seconds or so. Despite all the preparations, the football team of 2017 just couldn't put together what was necessary to get the job done.

Which takes me back to the Quorum Court, the 15-seat panel elected by Washington County voters to set budgets for county agencies and services and to pass whatever laws are necessary. Most folks don't pay much attention to the Quorum Court. They've never drawn a crowd even as big as Saturday's shrunken student section at Razorback Stadium. But their work is important. Services like the sheriff's office and jail, or the county road department, or the circuit and county clerks' offices, or the animal shelter could not function without the work of the Quorum Court. Sometimes it seems these services happen despite what goes on among the justices of the peace who make up the Quorum Court.

I've heard the comment before that the making of laws (in this case, a budget) is like making sausage in that they're both processes people are better off not watching. After Thursday night's Quorum Court meeting, at which the 2018 operational budget was scheduled to be adopted, I think one would have to apologize to sausage makers for the comparison.

It was ugly.

Washington County has functioned, according to county officials, on an unsustainable financial footing. The Quorum Court for several years has allocated more money for spending than the county collects in revenue through taxes, fees and other sources. The result is a steady drawdown of what's more or less viewed as reserve -- that cushion of money most of us wish we had in our bank accounts to take some stress out of our financial lives.

County Judge Joseph Wood put his faith in the Quorum Court, appointing all 15 members to the Budget and Finance Committee back in January, his first month in office. The members elected Eva Madison of Fayetteville to serve as committee chairman.

Madison back then said the task ahead would be difficult but she appreciated Wood's confidence in the Quorum Court. Justice of the Peace Lisa Ecke at the time called it "exciting" that the Quorum Court gets to "unite and do what is best for the citizens of Washington County."

Two samplings of how badly things have gone: By the time last Thursday's meeting adjourned, Madison had resigned as chairman and Ecke had called Madison "rude" and accused her of "petulance." The Quorum Court had failed to approve a budget for 2018 and appeared to be nowhere near agreement.

Madison said the Budget Committee had met six times. After Thursday night's failure, it's fair to wonder what members had been doing during those meetings, which Madison said cost taxpayers $18,000. Apparently there was just a lot of harrumphing going on (See Brooks, Mel; Blazing Saddles) and not a lot of what the Quorum Court members were there to accomplish.

"Tonight looked chaotic and it was chaotic," Madison said of the meeting. The committee's prior meetings presented ample opportunity for the budget issues to be hashed out but many concerns simply weren't raised before Thursday, she said. That raises questions, to me, about whether these folks are ready to put the work into formulating a budget or if all they expect to have to do to earn their pay is vote yes or no to whatever someone else does.

A millage increase, from 3.9 to 4.4 mills, was a possibility. Sheriff Tim Helder had asked the Quorum Court for $1.4 million to beef up his force of jailers and deputies, suggesting that to ignore the need would put his employees in more danger. Any support for a millage hike quickly dissipated Thursday after former Quorum Court member Roddy Lloyd and Jim Estes, chairman of the Washington County Republican Committee, offered reminders that Republicans should oppose tax increases.

Justice of the Peace Harvey Bowman of Springdale threw Helder's request under the bus Thursday, pushing to cut it in half and to cut a pay increase for all county employees.

Justice of the Peace Butch Pond laid out the situation: The Quorum Court hasn't cut enough from the budget if it's unwilling to restore the millage to its 2011 level of 4.4 mills. The millage hasn't been raised since 2001, Pond said.

"We're not going to be able to kick this can down the road," Pond said. "You've got people on this court who are not likely to be here when this reserve runs into zero."

There was so much more to Thursday's meeting to make it even more embarrassing than the Razorbacks' poor results this season, from procedural issues to revelation of the Quorum Court members' apparent capacity to have lots of meetings without achieving their goal. Today, it apparently starts all over, with Justice of the Peace Bill Ussery now in the role of committee chairman.

Good luck, JP Ussery. Hopefully he will have better luck prying out of his fellow members the ideas they have for developing a workable budget. On Thursday night, it looked like a room full of people either unwilling or incapable of working together to get their job done.

Commentary on 11/20/2017

Print Headline: 'No budget' November

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