Billy Davis Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Supervisors leave hard budget work to administrator

The back-and-forth struggle over a Panola sheriff’s budget is set to end soon, as soon as tomorrow, after gobbling up much of the month of August.

It cannot come soon enough, because so far it’s been a ridiculous sight to behold. It’s sort of “He hit me” then “He hit me first,” with no momma or a schoolteacher to break up the playground fight.

Here’s the problem: the Panola County Board of Supervisors is working to finalize and formally approve a 2011-2012 budget for the new fiscal year, which begins October 1. But supervisors have done little work so far, with much of the toil falling to County Administrator Kelley Magee.

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And therein lies the rub.

Supervisors have been wise to give Magee, an experienced CPA, plenty of latitude to review department budgets and re-re-calculate projected revenues and expenditures for 2012. Revenue numbers are worrisome for the coming fiscal year, which leaves Magee to privately wonder, and publicly ponder, if Panola County government can finish 2012 with even a minimum cushion.

If it fails to do so, she will surely get the blame. That would be a sad turnaround, since Magee is credited for moving county government from red to black over the past three years.

But when will supervisors start speaking up, too?

I have witnessed a month of budget meetings and it is the same process: the county administrator meets privately with department heads to request budget cuts, then she confronts them in the public budget meetings to ask in public what she asked for in private. And the supervisors just watch.

 Most of the attention  — hers, not theirs  — seems focused on the sheriff’s department. Magee has set her sights on their fuel usage, cellular phones, the fleet of forty-plus automobiles — even the number of lawn mowers used by jail trusties to cut grass.

And Magee may be right to question spending at the sheriff’s department, where the budget has jumped nearly $1 million in four years.

At the most recent board meeting, her prodding forced the sheriff to admit a part-time jailer, who works only one day a week, was driving a patrol car, when the fleet of cruisers is said to be in poor shape.

The sheriff also reeled at Magee’s suggestion that he sell a confiscated car at auction to raise funds, when he claims any cuts to his budget would increase crime in our community.

Touche, ma’am. But maybe it’s time to stop the inquisition, even if it’s deserved. Should the  Board of Supervisors take charge, finally, and do their jobs?

Do Supervisors need to take heed of the budget projections, understanding what it means for Panola County government and tell the sheriff how much he can increase his budget — if at all?

That would allow him to decide where and how to cut his budget — phones, lawnmowers, whatever he wishes.  If he fails to do so — well, there’s an election coming in November.

For whatever reason the number-crunching accountant has been forced to act as the attack dog, a blunder that has moved into its third year. This has unleashed ill feelings and even rumblings to get rid of her. None of that would be necessary if supervisors show true leadership.

You would expect a glimmer of leadership from this board, especially in an election year. Leadership is more than a campaign slogan. In tough times like today, it should be a verb.