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PINE BLUFF -- Jefferson County officials are dealing with another round of budget cuts spurred by a projection of $136,000 in excess spending for next year, which would put the county over its state-mandated budgeting cap of 90% of projected revenue.

According to projected revenue estimates supplied by Jefferson County Treasurer Vonysha Goodwin, the projected revenue for next year's general budget totals about $9.6 million.

By state law, the county can budget up to 90% of that projected revenue, or about $8.64 million. According to County Judge Gerald Robinson, the county's projected budget for 2020 currently exceeds that 90% by about $136,000.

"I do think that going by line-item cuts we did a pretty good job at trying to get there, but we just didn't do enough" Robinson said Thursday when he met with county department heads.

County budget problems have taken center stage this year, and efforts to control spending resulted in tense budget meetings throughout the year and moving funds between line items to try to shore up department budgets. Efforts to trim costs even prompted a lawsuit filed by Circuit Clerk Lafayette Woods Sr. against Robinson after the Quorum Court passed a workforce reduction ordinance that led to Woods' department losing three positions.

Robinson said Thursday that the county's budget problems are because of a decline in revenue from one year to the next as Jefferson County continues to lose population.

Since 1980, the county population has fallen from 90,718 to 68,114, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, the population was 77,339.

"If we can make it through the next year, I think we'll start seeing some additional revenues coming in," Robinson said.

Officials have said construction of Saracen Casino Resort, which is scheduled for completion late next year, should add revenue to county and city coffers as early as next summer. The resort is to include an 80,000-square-foot gambling floor with 2,000 slot machines and 50 gambling tables.

Robinson has said since January that the county must continue to deal with the budget it has, rather than money that is expected.

Robinson said during a January meeting with county department heads and elected officials that county employment increased from 414 workers in 2013 to 432 in 2018, despite declines in the tax base and in revenue over the previous five years.

"We are still operating Jefferson County like we did when we had 20,000 people more than what we have now," Robinson said at the time. "We have more employees dealing with less revenue, so therefore balance it out. We cannot continue to operate where we are."

Robinson said if the budget problem had been met head-on back in 2012 or 2013, it could have been dealt with through attrition.

Robinson has trimmed payroll costs from the departments he controls, eliminated take-home vehicles for many county employees and elected officials, and has worked to cut equipment costs, which he said has saved the county as much as $300,000 out of the general budget.

In May, the Quorum Court passed a workforce reduction ordinance that prompted Woods' lawsuit against Robinson. Special Judge David Laser of Jonesboro, who was appointed by Arkansas Chief Justice John Dan Kemp to hear the case, dismissed the lawsuit in August.

Also, earlier this year, Jefferson County dealt with historic flooding that required spending large sums of money on rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts. That money will be reimbursed, said Justice of the Peace Ted Harden, chairman of the county finance committee, but until it is, the county will bear the cost.

"We spent right at a half-million dollars dealing with the damage the flood did," Harden said. "We're waiting on FEMA to actually reimburse us, and you know how long that's going to take."

No matter what it takes, Robinson said, the county will get its budget to the 90% of projected-revenue point.

"When revenues start to increase, we'll be better able to handle these things," Robinson said. "I know we're tearing down, but we're going to build back up when things get better."

State Desk on 10/04/2019

Print Headline: Jefferson County still $136,000 over its budget limit

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