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Washington County officials endorse 2022 budgets

by Tom Sissom | September 8, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
The Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County's justices of the peace on Tuesday recommended approval of 2022 budget proposals from 19 county elected officials.

The Quorum Court's Finance & Budget Committee continued its budget work by recommending all of the budgets to the full Quorum Court for approval.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the justices of the peace discussed inconsistencies in the estimated cost of insuring county buildings. The issue focused on the budget for the Sheriff's Office where the cost of fire and hazard insurance coverage for the Detention Center and other buildings increased by about $282,000, from about $77,000 in the 2021 budget to an estimated $360,000 in the 2022 budget request.

Chief Deputy Jay Cantrell said it appears the insurance company has overvalued some buildings, but added that the Sheriff's Office hasn't yet received "good answers" to questions about the increase.

Brian Lester, county attorney, said the county plans to rebid the insurance coverage for all county buildings to try and reduce costs. Other departments showed higher costs, but no increases were as large as those for the Sheriff's Office and Detention Center.

The justices of the peace voted to recommend to the Quorum Court that the cost of insurance in the Sheriff's Office budget remain at the 2021 level. After the bidding process is complete, the cost of insurance will be reconsidered.

The justices of the peace also recommended changes in the staffing requests for the county's two juvenile courts. The committee recommended transferring five employees from Judge Stacey Zimmerman's Division III court staff to the new staff for Judge Diane Warren in Division VIII. Four new positions will also be created for Warren's staff. The state approved the creation of a second juvenile court for Washington County, and Warren was elected to the position in 2020 and began serving in January.

The budget proposal endorsed by the committee did not include raises for county employees. The justices of the peace have said they will consider personnel as a separate issue in the budget process. The justices of the peace have discussed moving the pay ranges for county positions upward by 10%. The pay scales for the county have been set in their current ranges since 2016. The justices of the peace have discussed raises for employees of up to 3.5% and have also discussed providing for merit raises.

Blair Johanson, with the Johanson Group consulting firm, told the justices of the peace in earlier budget meetings that shifting the pay ranges by 10% would be just one part of changes to the employee compensation plan. He gave the justices of the peace information on the cost of giving employees 3% raises and of giving employees 3.5% raises in addition to shifting the pay ranges.

The total cost of the option including 3.5% pay raises was put at about $1.3 million while the option with the 3% raises was put at about $1.2 million. Those costs would include bringing some employees now at or near the bottom of their pay ranges into compliance with the new ranges.

Johanson has told the justices of the peace that the most recent salary study done by the group shows Washington County is well below the average market pay both locally and nationally. Nationally, he said, Washington County is about 12% below the market average for comparable jobs. In comparison to the four largest cities in Northwest Arkansas, he said, Washington County is about 10% below the market average. Washington County is about 5.8% below Benton County pay for similar positions, he said.

Also Tuesday, the committee tabled until November an ordinance that would appropriate $256,000 from the county's $23 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for work on a new sewer system for the Homestead subdivision in unincorporated Washington County.

Jim Wilson, justice of the peace for District 14, said the system originally installed for the 80 homes is failing and sewage from the system spills into two nearby creeks, which flow into the West Fork of the White River and then into Beaver Lake. The residents asked the county for help with engineering and design work and land acquisition. The total cost of the project was estimated at about $2.2 million.

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What’s next

Washington County’s justices of the peace will consider the county’s 2022 budget requests when the Quorum Court meets at 6 p.m. on Sept. 16. The county’s budget controls ordinance, which will include personnel costs, will be brought to the Quorum Court for consideration in November, according to Patrick Deakins, chairman of the county’s Finance and budget Committee.

Source: Staff report

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