Panola County Budget

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Supervisors ask for department cuts to aid budget

By Billy Davis

Working to avert a budget crisis in the next fiscal year, Panola County supervisors on Monday asked department heads to review their budgets and trim any expenditures they deem nonessential.

“We’re not telling you where to save a dollar, just to help us save a dollar,” board president Gary Thompson said to a sprinkling of attendees at the First District meeting in Sardis.

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A list of possible cuts should be ready before a March 26 board meeting, Thompson and other supervisors said later in the meeting. 

Supervisors had asked county officials to meet at 10 o’clock to discuss the county budget. Those who attended were Tax Assessor David Garner, justice court clerk Carrie Ann Davis, sheriff’s chief deputy Otis Griffin, and Extension Service agent Judd Gentry.

Panola Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright, road manager Lygunnah Bean, and Panola EMA Director Daniel Cole regularly attend the board meetings and were also present.

Discussion of cutting costs bounced around the boardroom, but only Davis offered an immediate suggestion: close down the justice court in Batesville and move all proceedings to the justice court in Sardis.

The move to a single courtroom would save Panola County $300 a month in rental of the city court building and also better organize the proceedings, Davis told supervisors.

She further explained that the move would not inconvenience a business owner in Batesville who files court papers, for example, since court cases rotate by judge, not by jurisdiction.

The Panolian reported last week that Panola County government faces a dramatic budget problem in the next fiscal year, now eight months away. An already-tight 2008-2009 budget could face dramatic cuts unless major cost savings are found, Thompson and others have said.

The main culprits are a decrease in tax collections and overspending in 2006 and 2007 that went unreported by the former county administrator, county officials also said.

The reported overspending, estimated at $1.5 million last year, gobbles up the county’s reserves.

Thompson did not address the excessive spending but said Monday that county projects show tax collections could be $600,000 less than the previous year.

“David, are people not paying their taxes?” Bright asked the tax assessor.

“They’re not buying car tags and not paying taxes,” Garner replied.

Bright and Bean, whose departments represent the largest county expenditures respectively, addressed trimming their budgets but offered few immediate suggestions. The two departments account for about $5 million in annual funding.

Bean said he could delay the purchase of a bulldozer motor, estimated to cost $15,000, but he dismissed the stated suggestion of moving to a four-day workweek.

“A four-day work week is a feel-good savings,” he said.

Bright quibbled with Thompson briefly when the sheriff announced that he could not make any cuts.

“I can’t put a pencil to (the budget) because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bright said.

“If you don’t put a pencil to it, that doesn’t help us any,” Thompson replied.

Bright then suggested that the department will watch its budget through the remainder of the year and any savings will be seen at the end of the fiscal year.

“What if it’s the end of the year and you don’t have any savings?” Thompson asked.

A quarrel between supervisors and Bright has been simmering since an August budget meeting, when the sheriff threatened to stop nighttime patrols if the department budget was not increased. The sheriff’s department budget was eventually increased by approximately $400,000.

Bright has countered that holding state prisoners in a new jail addition will create more revenue for the county, and said again Monday that he deserves credit for helping county government save money.

The disagreement was tempered when Griffin, the chief deputy, told the board that he and Bright will examine the department budget this week. 

Bubba Waldrup was the only other supervisor to comment at length about the budget crunch.

“We’re asking you to take a look at what you can do without,” he said.