The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 16, 2013

Ashtabula County commissioners plan to pass permanent general fund budget Thursday

Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — Commissioners plan to pass a permanent general fund budget for the county when the board meets for its agenda meeting on Thursday.

County offices and departments funded by the general fund have been operating on temporary appropriations set at one-quarter of last year’s final appropriations. Most departments are likely to see little in way of additional money when the board adopts its permanent budget, work on which began last fall.

For the third year, that work involved the input from five citizens who served on the county’s Citizens Budget Advisory Committee: Bernie Haytcher, Ann Marrison, John Parker, George Toth and Tom Westlake. The committee is a unique concept in Ohio county government; members attend the work sessions at which elected officials present and defend their budget requests. Afterwards, they convene to develop a list of their observations and recommend ways to streamline county government and make better use of dwindling revenues.

The document produced by the committee is submitted to the board and reviewed in a work session. Commissioners and volunteers held the session last week as they went over the list of 10 recommendations and four observations.

Awarding raises based on job performance rather than longevity on the job or contract negotiations is among the recommendations that the committee discussed with commissioners Tuesday.

“We feel that is probably one of the most equitable ways of doing it,” said Tom Westlake, who led the discussion with commissioners during a work session with the five-member committee.

Westlake said the committee also recommends that elected officials work to bring pay equity across departments for the same job classification. Further, if commissioners feel that the county has the revenues to grant wage increases, the board ought to hold the same percentage of increase across all departments. Implementing that practice will be challenging, however, because several different labor unions represent county employees.

“We are advocating 2 percent (pay increases in 2013),” Commissioner Peggy Carlo told the committee. However, she said the commissioners can only recommend a figure and the actual decision rests with the elected officials, who have control of their own budgets once the money is appropriated.

Many county employees did receive raises late last year or early this year. For most, the increases came on the heels of several years of stagnant wages, reflecting the new reality of county budgets.

“I think as a board, we are very frugal,” Carlo said. “We have to continue with that philosophy because it is a very different world.”

County revenues fell by millions of dollars in 2009 and have been slow to recover. Furlough days were implemented, some workers were laid off and departments were axed or consolidated as budgets were rolled back to levels not seen in years.

The board has focused on efficiency, and to that end invested $200,000 last year to replace 30 servers in the information technology section with just three. The down sizing is expected to save on software licensing and energy costs, while creating a platform that is more technologically advanced and capable of supporting new projects, including revamping the county’s website.

“We have to get the infrastructure in place,” Carlo said. “I think we’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.”

Commissioner Daniel Claypool said the county spent $300,000 to create updated electronic maps that are used throughout government offices and the 9-1-1 system. The board also is seeking proposals from consultants willing to study the feasibility of creating a central dispatching center in the county, which now has six public safety access points that receive emergency calls.

“I think we are looking up all the old crevices, checking things out. We’re not going to move forward without a plan,” Carlo said.

 The committee recommended that the county’s clerk of courts office continue its aggressive microfilming program to reduce the burden of storage space, do more bulk purchasing and cut utility expenses by at least 10 percent. Claypool said the new windows and roofs on many of the courthouse complex buildings ought to accomplish that and perhaps do even better.

Another recommendation, to bill back to general fund offices the cost of gasoline used by each office, will be more challenging to accomplish, said County Administrator Janet Discher. Because bulk fuel bills must be paid when the product is delivered, and the price of the fuel fluctuates from delivery to delivery, billing back would require implementing some complex bookkeeping procedures.

Discher agreed that officials would be more likely to keep a closer eye on fuel consumption if the cost were coming out of their budgets, however. As it is, only non-general fund offices are billed for their fuel use.

The committee also raised questions about the viability of the airport, which depends upon an annual infusion of cash from the county in order to survive. Commissioners suggested the committee members schedule a tour of the airport and its hangars to get a better idea of the infrastructure and how it helps position the county for economic development.

The board thanked the committee members for serving and promised to send copies of their report to all elected officials.

“Everyone complains about the government, but it is remarkable that it works as well as it does,” observed Westlake at the conclusion of the meeting.