County Budget

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 12, 2008

‘Bad timing’ say critics of new county budget

By Billy Davis
Panola County supervisors approved a five-mill tax increase Thursday after holding a public hearing, where a sprinkling of Panola Countians pressed supervisors about their spending decisions.

Panola Countians who pay property taxes will see the tax increase, the first in more than eight years, in the coming fiscal year. The fiscal year begins October 1.

The board of supervisors on Thursday was racing to beat a September 15 state deadline to approve its budget.

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The new budget will total $18 million according to figures provided by County Administrator Kelley Magee.

County supervisors in Mississippi may be best known for overseeing road maintenance, but the job of annually approving a county budget, obviously a vital priority, also falls under their responsibilities.

In a year’s time Panola property owners fund public schools, ambulance service, law enforcement, road and bridge maintenance, circuit and chancery courts, coroner’s office, elections, justice court, volunteer fire departments and public libraries.

Before the hearing moved to public comments, outgoing Administrator David Chandler defended the need for a millage increase by naming a laundry list of new or growing expenditures. Those increases included:

•Increased autopsy fees and death case fees, both approved by the state legislature, which increased the county coroner budget.

•Pay raises for justice court judges that were approved by the state legislature.

•The addition of three sheriff’s deputies to ensure 24-hour coverage.

•Substantial increases in employee health insurance and fuel costs.

•A new ambulance service that increased the county’s annual cost by $84,000

•Payments on new road department equipment.

“There are no raises and everybody’s budget is maintaining what it is in the current fiscal year,” Chandler said.

After Chandler read through his list, board president Gary Thompson opened the floor for comments.

“I’m totally against a tax increase. It’s bad timing,” said Hal Herron, a Eureka resident who ran for District 3 supervisor last year.

Pleasant Grove resident Jim Fitts, also a past supervisor candidate, pressed supervisors and Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright about his plan to purchase a helicopter for the department.

“I think it’s a good idea but the timing is bad,” Fitts told the sheriff.

But Bright and outgoing Administrator David Chandler explained that the helicopter purchase will come from funds seized by the sheriff department’s drug interdiction work.

Bright had planned to purchase the $150,000 helicopter from DeSoto County with funds from his department budget, but the sheriff has since agreed to the new stipulation in order to trim his budget.

“It was taken out of his budget,” Chandler told Fitts.

The sheriff’s department expects to receive about $400,000 in drug-seized funds, and Fitts pressed the sheriff to use some of those funds toward his new budget.

“Those seized funds can only be spent on equipment and supplies,” Bright replied.

A third Panola County resident, Paul Shipman, questioned why Panola taxpayers bear 100 percent of the health insurance coverage for county employees when surrounding counties do not.

Shipman said a “brief survey” he conducted of surrounding counties showed that Tate County employees pay 20 percent of the cost. In Quitman County, the health insurance is paid but county employees there pay a $1,000 deductible.

Supervisors did not quote the deductible for Panola County employees.

 “I don’t see how we can afford to pay,” Shipman said.

Chandler has addressed the rising cost of medical insurance in past years and has suggested that supervisors consider requiring employees to pay a portion of their health insurance.

After the public comments concluded, supervisors immediately moved to approve the budget.
The vote was unanimous.