Panola Supervisor Meetings

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 27, 2009

Panola County supervisors Gary Thompson (far right) and Bubba Waldrup (second from right) listen to County Administrator Kelley Magee (next to Waldrup) describe the county’s dire financial situation. Seated next to Magee is Supervisor James Birge. The Panolian photo by Billy Davis

Supervisors face hard decisions to fix budget

By Billy Davis

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Panola County’s board of supervisors, meeting Monday in Batesville, saw figures that show county government overspent its 2007-2008 budget by $1.5 million, leaving them with a budget that must be trimmed dramatically in order to remain in the black.

The overspending gobbles up a portion of the current 2008-2009 budget, which was already tight and was already a concern for supervisors.

Figures viewed by the county board Monday show a streak of overspending. A surplus of $142,468 in 2005 was followed by $268,998 of overspending in 2006. The overspending then jumped dramatically: the county went $2 million over budget in 2006 then went $1.3 million over budget in 2007.

County Administrator Kelley Magee, who prepared the figures, also explained to the county board that overspending kept gobbling up the cash balance that would have been used in the next fiscal year.

A county budget with $6.6 million on hand at the end of 2005 had dropped to $4.6 million in 2006, then $3 million when the current fiscal year began October 1.

Without dramatic cuts, supervisors could enter the next fiscal year, just eight months away, with less than $1 million in reserves.

“The purpose of the meeting was to show supervisors where we stand,” Magee explained to The Panolian afterward.

“And where we stand – I don’t think it looks very good.”

The overspending, and the budget problem it creates, is further complicated with a second problem discussed Monday: tax revenues have shown a dip in the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Tax collections on automobile tags, for example, are 12 percent lower than previous year figures, supervisors learned.

Magee, meeting with a reporter in her courthouse office, summarized the budget situation as this: the present board of supervisors, along with Magee, has inherited the overspending of the previous board and previous administrator.

Magee, at first hesitant to place blame, eventually explained to a reporter that David Chandler had allowed supervisors in August to adopt a similar budget without their knowledge of the overspending.

“What the supervisors did was adopt basically the same budget,” said Magee. “Because of the overspending, what they were adopting were not realistic figures.”

Chandler had been Panola County’s administrator since 1987 and over time had built the position into a powerful office.

“We were like sheep following the shepherd,” said Supervisor Bubba Waldrup, now in his second term on the county board. “It’s our fault for not demanding to know everything.”

During the most recent budget process, Chandler did tell supervisors they were facing a tight budget.

The county board reacted accordingly, foregoing any employee pay raises and agreeing to keep most department budgets at their then-current levels.

The former administrator also advised supervisors that a one-mill increase would be needed to balance the budget. As the budget meetings progressed, however, that figure jumped from one mill to three mills and eventually to five mills per Chandler’s advice. 

The Panola County Board of Supervisors eventually approved a five-mill increase.

Magee, who was hired in August by the board, said this week that her role during the budget meetings was as an observer, not a collaborator.

Supervisor Gary Thompson, the board president, seconded that recollection. Supervisors relied on Chandler’s advice to prepare the current budget, he said.

“We didn’t know that every year the reserves had gone down. Chandler didn’t tell us that,” said Thompson, who sat through his first budget meeting in August. 

Thompson also said he has met individually with other supervisors, urging them to anticipate making difficult budget-related decisions in coming weeks.

“It was Chandler’s responsibility to put everything on the table and he didn’t do it,” Thompson said. “Our new administrator is putting it all on the table and the decisions will be ours.” 

Those decisions could include moving to a four-day workweek, which would save on fuel costs. A more dramatic cutback would be a reduction in employees’ work hours, which would require changing the current medical insurance policy in order for employees to keep their insurance.

At the Monday meeting, Magee and supervisors, along with other county employees, discussed other cost-saving options that included a hiring freeze; asking longtime employees to retire and work part-time; limiting employees’ cell phone usage; and limiting the number of employees who take their vehicles home.

Magee came prepared Monday with figures that show current cellular phone bill and fuel costs. She also distributed the results of an “energy audit,” performed by TVEPA, which shows energy usage in county buildings.

 “I want you to lay it all out there,” Thompson told The Panolian. “I want the public to know the position we’re in.”