PINE BLUFF -- In a contentious and extended meeting Monday night, the Jefferson County Quorum Court cobbled together an insurance payment to a contractor who made repairs to hail-damaged county buildings last year, a stopgap funding appropriation to keep the Jefferson County sheriff's office solvent and a workforce reduction ordinance over the objections of the county tax collector and a justice of the peace.
County Judge Gerald Robinson said the recommended cuts should not have a negative effect on the county's ability to provide services to the public. He said many of the reductions came from vacant positions that the county is obligated to fund as long as they are on the books.
"I'd have to sit down and look at it to know exactly how many people we will actually lose. But the ability of the county to continue providing services to the people will have little impact, if any," Robinson said.
Early this year, Robinson asked elected officials in the county to make staffing cuts in order to help shore up the increasingly shaky budget. Most complied, but two, Tax Collector Tony Washington and Circuit Clerk Lafayette Woods Sr., according to Robinson, have not. A decision reached by the Quorum Court on Monday night may force compliance after justices approved a plan by Robinson to cut the county budget.
In a supplemental appropriation ordinance approved by the Quorum Court by a 12-1 vote, nine county jobs will be eliminated for a total savings of $368,129.71 in salary and benefits. Prior cuts in the office of county judge of $103,334 and the office of sheriff of $53,050 bring the total savings to nearly $525,000 annually.
Justice of the Peace Alfred Carroll Sr. asked if any provision was made in the ordinance to allow for callbacks of employees affected by the reduction.
"That's up to the elected officials," Robinson said. "We don't have the power to hire and fire. We only appropriate the budget."
Justice of the Peace Herman Ginger noted that the cuts, though unpleasant, were necessary.
"If they are not going to comply then the Quorum Court has to be the bad guy and cut their budget," Ginger said.
County Treasurer Vonysha Goodwin objected that the elected officials who oversee the departments being cut were not informed that those cuts would be decided at Monday night's meeting.
"We did not receive this packet," Goodwin said. "We don't even know what's going on with this."
Goodwin did cut one slot in her office for a savings of $30,000, as requested by Robinson prior to the meeting, but said that with no information regarding what was being decided, it was hard to follow what decisions were being made.
Washington, the county tax collector, said he had made the cuts requested by moving one employee into a different line item, a move that Robinson said was not the agreement made earlier in the year.
"Two or three months ago you said you would cut a person," Robinson said to Washington.
"I said I would do my part and that's what I've done," Washington replied.
Justice of the Peace Brenda Gaddy, the lone no vote on the appropriations ordinance, said she would not vote for anything that would cause people to lose jobs.
"I personally will never vote for this," she said.
Robinson said that, like it or not, the measure was a necessary step for the county to avoid defaulting on its obligations.
"That is the cards we are dealt. We no longer have the people we need to support the employees we have," he said. "We have kicked the can down the road until we have no more aluminum to kick."
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Jefferson County has had a declining population since 1990, losing more than 16,000 residents in 28 years.
"We are in a crisis here," said Justice of the Peace Ted Harden, chairman of the finance committee. "We've got less people than we had 10 years ago and more employees than we had 10 years ago. As far as that goes, if we continue losing population, we won't have 13 JPs much longer."
To help keep the sheriff's office afloat, the Quorum Court approved a measure allowing the department to move $42,000 from internal line items to maintenance and operations so it can continue to pay its bills for the next three months. That agreement was worked out between Robinson, Harden, Public Safety Committee Chairman Jimmy Lee Fisher, and Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods Jr., despite the fact that Woods had initially requested $428,000 to be transferred from the county general fund.
According to Woods, the department appropriation for 2019 was just over $207,000 less than requested by the former sheriff, Robinson, who took office as county judge January 1.
Complicating matters are a payment of $188,259 the department was required to make on a loan obtained by the county to complete the new sheriff's office building and $32,000 to pay claims from last year. Woods said replacing that money in his budget is essential to allow him to continue operations.
Woods said he is operating the department and the county jail with staffing as lean as he can make it and still function.
"The only alternative to restoring my budget is for me to open the jail and let everyone out," he said. "That's not an alternative at all, but what can I do? My jail administrator is cooking meals, doing laundry and all sorts of things that aren't in her job description. She's supposed to delegate those duties, but there's no one to delegate to."
"This $42,000 will give him enough to operate for the next 90 days, until which time we can come back and revisit this," said Fisher.
Quorum Court members nearly deadlocked on a proposal to use $150,000 in an insurance fund to pay just under half of a bill owed to Jonesboro Roofing for repairs done to county buildings that were damaged in last year's hailstorm.
Because the fund contains $270,000, which is $33,000 less than the total owed, some justices wanted to deplete the fund and pay the $270,000. Robinson objected, saying the agreement was made with Jonesboro Roofing to accept a $150,000 payment before the county knew the additional $120,000 was available.
Robinson said the confusion was over insurance reimbursements related to the hailstorm damage that were sent to the county in bulk amounts that were not itemized, prompting the county to pay the money out as repair bills came in without earmarking the money to make sure it was properly credited.
"They sent a block of money with no destination on it," said Pamela Jenkins, chief of staff for Robinson. "According to the insurance company, they sent the money to enable us to begin making payments as a good faith effort."
The problem, Robinson said, was that when it came time to pay Jonesboro Roofing, the money had been depleted, but the company had agreed to take half of the payment and give the county time to come up with the rest.
"We aren't going to spend the money," Robinson said. "It will be there when the time comes to pay the rest."
Robinson said the additional money will be taken out of proceeds from the auction of county vehicles and equipment that have been taken out of service to save money.
The debate on whether to pay the agreed upon amount or the entire amount contained in the insurance fund took three votes and more than 45 minutes of debate before justices agreed to pay the $150,000 and to appropriate the remainder once the additional $33,000 owed is in the fund.
State Desk on 05/14/2019
Print Headline: Jefferson County votes to pay bill, cut jobs