County Budget

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Give-and-take gets little break in budget face-off

By Billy Davis

Panola Sheriff Otis Griffin is already trimming his department’s 2012 budget after presenting it to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday evening, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department said this week.

Griffin’s budget trimming amounts to a preliminary move by the sheriff, who had expected supervisors to request some cuts in coming days, administrative assistant Robbie Haley told The Panolian.

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“After the budget meeting we knew what we had to do,” said Haley. “So we sat down and we went to work on the numbers trying to find some places to cut.”

The fiscal year begins October 1 for Panola County government and county supervisors have met twice so far to hear budget requests from the sheriff’s department, road department, and Panola EMA.

Other agencies, such as First Regional Library, have made appearances at regular board meetings to announce their requests.

Panola County’s budget for 2011-2012 must be approved by September 15.  

The bulk of the sheriff’s department budget includes three separate accounts — patrol and investigations, the jail, and the narcotics task force. Griffin and Haley presented a $4.9 million budget for all three.

Before he began making post-meeting cuts, Griffin was requesting an increase of $33,133 for patrol and investigations and $104,514 for jail operations. The task force was set to increase $21,279.

The three proposed budget bumps total $158,926, a number that is no longer accurate due to cutting, according to Haley.

She did not say how much has been trimmed so far since the task is not completed.  

The sheriff’s department has the largest annual budget in Panola County government, though its followed closely by the road department, and supervisors are known to scrutinize those two departments more than others during budget meetings.

The sheriff’s department budget has increased from $3.9 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year to $4.8 million this fiscal year, an increase just under $1 million over four years.

Lygunnah Bean, Panola County’s road manager, has presented his proposed budget for $4.1 million that shows he cut the proposed 2011-2012 budget over this year’s budget by $175,418.

Bean credited the budget cut to a surplus in the road department budget, which has allowed county government to skip seeking tax anticipation funds this coming year.  

Lurking in the background, meanwhile, is a cut-cut-cut decree, now in its fourth year, from the Board of Supervisors.

The county board has asked department heads to watch their costs as county government struggles through a lingering recession that has affected government revenues.     

Also lurking in the background is politics. Budget meetings this year fall in the middle of elections in county government, which naturally creates added scrutiny from challengers and the public at large.  

A third factor is also lurking in the background: a give-and-take between County Administrator Kelley Magee and the sheriff’s department.

Supervisors have credited Magee for reigning in a county budget that was in the red when Magee was hired, though supervisors have also said they hear complaints about her cut-your-budget tactics.  

Magee has repeatedly, and publicly, set her sites on the sheriff’s department. In 2008 she suggested that off-duty deputies park their cruisers at the department to save fuel and maintenance costs. She modified that idea in 2010 to suggest part-time deputies, jailers and secretaries.

At the same budget meeting last summer, she also targeted cell phone usage, which was costing the sheriff’s department $2,800 a month.

Sheriff Griffin’s budget showed a proposed increase of $35,000 at the time, almost exactly a year ago.  

Both Griffin and late sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright have countered that the sheriff’s department also creates revenue for Panola County government — especially the use of inmate labor for garbage collection and projects on public property, which saves thousands of dollars annually.

Much of the sheriff’s department revenues also flow straight into the county’s general fund, they have noted in the past.  

At the budget meeting this week, Magee shared copies of deputies’ fuel costs and cellular phone usage with supervisors, with Griffin, Haley and other personnel also present.

The county administrator then passed out additional copies, too, showing other funds within the sheriff’s department, including two seized funds accounts, one for $119,924 and the second for $38,996. The larger amount is currently in a CD.

A third sheriff’s fund that shows a balance of $31,221 gives investigators access to “buy money” for drug stings or to purchase items suspected of being stolen, Griffin said at the meeting.

Despite behind-the-scenes disagreements, the mood remained light in the county boardroom during the sheriff’s presentation.

The proposed budget for the task force kicked off the budget meeting.

“That wasn’t terrible, was it?” Magee asked Mark Whitten, the new task force commander, after supervisors reviewed the budget.

“I’m still breathing,” Whitten replied.