State Spending

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 26, 2010

State ‘trickle’ may mean trouble for county’s coffers

By Billy Davis

The latest financial picture for Panola County government suggests spending is under control. But cuts at the state level could threaten a financial outlook that is already wobbly.    

“What I’m worried about is what trickles down to us,” board president Gary Thompson said Thursday.

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Topping that list is concern that the Miss. Department of Corrections (MDOC) may end a program that pays Panola and other counties $20 a day for housing a state inmate.

MDOC Commissioner Chris Epps has said he plans to end the Joint County-State Work Program on March 15 in order to plug a budget cut at the state agency.

In Panola County, the work program stands to bring in $204,400 for 28 state trusties now kept at the county jail. In addition to losing that money, supervisors are depending on the MDOC reimbursement to finance a new addition to the jail.

A payment of $269,678 is due August 1, which follows an interest-only payment of $99,687 that was made February 1, said County Administrator Kelley Magee.

Thompson and other supervisors, when they reviewed county finances at a February 18 meeting, learned that Panola County government finished the most recent fiscal year in the black.

After running deficits for three straight years, the county showed revenues of $234,294 in 2008-2009, according to figures provided by Magee.

But supervisors also learned the numbers were positive because the county had received “one-time money” during the year, Magee also said.

Magee explained that county government had been paid $166,000 from a Batesville insurance agency that had twice overbilled the county.

The “one-time money” also included a $415,340 reimbursement from MDOC for housing state inmates. That payment came after Magee said she discovered the sheriff’s department did not receive a reimbursement for 2006-2007.

The pair of one-time payments total $581,340, meaning without them county government would have been $347,045 in the red.

Even though county finances are worrisome, Thompson said tough decisions would come when cuts at the state level – which are now only threats – become clearer.

“We’ll know, in a month or so, if we have to do some serious looking at the budget,” he said.  

The board president said another concern is that Mississippi counties stand to lose $6.8 million from a cut to the Homestead Exemption Reimbursement. The reimbursement goes to counties from the state to make up for tax revenue they lose through the property tax allowance.

Governor Haley Barbour’s cut to Homestead Reimbursement is expected to slice $32,385 from the $396,650 that Panola County budgeted for the current year, according to county figures.

Panola County will also be required to put more money into employees’ state retirement beginning in July, County Chancery Clerk Jim Pitcock told supervisors.

Pitcock said the current rate of 12 percent will jump to 13.56 percent in July, and it’s expected to jump to 18 percent over five years.