A second special-called meeting was held last night at 6 p.m., during which the Marshall County Fiscal Court expected to vote on the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget. Because the meeting was held past press time, coverage of that meeting will be posted on our website today.
The fiscal court members were expected to vote on the budget during the two-hour June 19 special-called meeting but Neal said the proposed budget wasn't sent to the Department of Local Government for review until May 22, which should have been done nearer May 1, so they couldn't vote on it yet. He and Marshall County Deputy Judge-Executive Brad Warning said they had learned the morning of the meeting their proposed budget "was still sitting in someone's inbox" and had been told they would get the review before the meeting started. But that hadn't happened, they said.
But before Neal informed the commissioners of this information, Commissioner Monti Collins kicked off the meeting with a motion for a change to the proposed budget that would allow for a 1.75% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all county employees who are not elected officials. Commissioner Kevin Spraggs offered a second on the motion.
Neal asked how much that would cost and Warning said including the officers at the Marshall County Sheriff's Office, just under $138,000. Neal then looked to Collins and asked from where in the budget they suggest pulling it.
Collins said the county historically pulls in nearly $6 million in occupational tax dollars but disburses around $4.25 million. He said they could pull from the remaining funds to cover the cost and while he considers himself fiscally conservative, he also didn't feel as if this modification would be fiscally irresponsible.
Neal compared the measure to "kicking the can down the road," saying they needed to make sure funds were available for the unforeseen incidents like the flooding of July 2017, noting he didn't want to raise taxes. He also said during the creation of a budget, "tough decisions have to be made" and reported that all of his department heads were okay with their employees not getting the COLA this year.
Spraggs said he felt as if the 1.75% COLA was "more than fair," especially considering the mandated amount for certain elected officials this year was 1.9% (judge-executive, sheriff, jailer and county clerk).
"I know employee morale can certainly get low when they see things happen and may not feel like they're getting a fair shake. A COLA is not a raise it's for inflation and we have money to do it," he said.
Commissioner Justin Lamb said he was "willing to be the bad guy" because he "has broad shoulders," and echoed Neal's statements regarding the need to preserve occupational tax funds.
Collins said, "As it relates to historical numbers versus the budget, what I look at is what it would take to cause that to be $5 million and it's obviously a catastrophe that is going to be something much more than this 1.75 COLA could ever take care of." He also argued it was inappropriate to associate his request with "kicking the can down the road."
Collins and Spraggs suggested a few places from which they believed the funds could easily be pulled to cover the COLA for the county employees but Neal was visibly frustrated, saying the dollars they were suggesting had already been appropriated to something else and listed several of the ongoing, high-dollar projects the county is currently overseeing.
"We've got a lot of things going on and I'm trying to get the current court educated on current projects and upcoming projects and there are still misunderstandings," Neal said. "I can do it here, in front of the public and they can choose to listen or they can choose to not. I'm working hard to try to make sure the projects and information are out."
Neal called for a vote for the motion on the floor to allow for COLA for county employees (excluding elected officials): Neal and Lamb voted in opposition; Spraggs and Collins in favor.
Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said that 2-2 vote meant the motion died. He said the only votes in which the county judge-executive gets a tie-breaker vote is when appointing personnel. He noted the budget still had to be voted on and it was at this point in the meeting when Neal told them they couldn't vote on the budget during this meeting.
But the discussion continued and the next topic was the "special service group grants" line item, which is what funds the county's non-profit grants. Spraggs made a motion to restore that line item to $200,000 and Collins seconded it, noting the purpose of his second was for the purpose of being able to have discussion.
"I would like opportunity to work with nonprofits directly, myself, and help them get in a better situation. There are a a lot of them that don't have the opportunity to help themselves. Some can do better," he said. "I'm not willing to give up on them."
Spraggs noted the current $50,000 in the line item which will be split among them "will be devastating to them" and said he's "not prepared to do that."
Neal said when he first came to office, which was Nov. 2015 directly following the special election, he sat down with directors of the Marshall County Caring Needline, Marcella's Kitchen and both Senior Citizens centers (Benton/Calvert City, which had merged by that point, and Hardin). He said he was aware of the pension issue up ahead and realized the county couldn't continue funding the way it had been so he asked them if there was a way to combine services under one roof so all of them could cost-share, while still operating independently. He said it turned political and never materialized.
Neal also noted that he's tried to cut the funding back each year--that when the current fiscal year's budget was proposed he had only allotted for $100,000 but was overruled by the commissioners. Now this year, he had cut it back to $50,000 and, looking at Spraggs, said he was again faced with commissioners asking him to raise it. He reminded the court and the dense audience, of the training the county paid for the nonprofit directors to attend last year.
It's the Purchase Area Development District's responsibility to ensure the seniors who rely on the Meals on Wheels program still receive their meals Monday through Friday, Neal said, not the responsibility of the fiscal court. He said he had also spoken with Marcella Perkins, founder of Marcella's Kitchen, about her ability to step in and feed the seniors when or if the Benton/Calvert Senior Citizens Center closed. (For more information about the seniors centers and the meals programs, see this week's article in which we highlight that particular issue.)
"There has been warnings and information given," he said. "The budget restraints that are coming, we need to start looking at alternatives. There is a solution."
"Nobody wants to let seniors that are homebound not get these services," he added.
A number of the Marshall County residents in the crowd spoke up, some as concerned taxpayers and some as representatives of the various nonprofit organizations interested in the decision. The group representing the Benton/Calvert City Senior Citizens Center took up three pews. There were also several people representing the Needline and the chairman of their board and their director both spoke passionately about their many fundraisers taking place annually, taking offense at the idea that they don't work to raise as much as possible independently.
Spraggs noted that the amount he's asking is less than one perfect of the county's entire budget, adding, "It's sad to me that we can't even set that aside."
Collins said he wasn't comfortable with $200,000 but he also wasn't comfortable with going from $200,000 to $50,000. He said he's not a proponent of how it was done last year but he also doesn't think it's irresponsible to have $150,000 available. He noted he wanted all four members of the fiscal court to have a fair and equal chance to vote on how those funds are disbursed when the time comes.
The motion made by Spraggs to restore the special service group grants line item to $200,000 was voted down by Neal, Lamb and Collins.
But immediately, Collins made a motion to restore the special service group grants line item to $150,000. Spraggs offered the second. But again, when it came time to a vote, Neal and Lamb voted in opposition and Collins and Spraggs voted in favor--so the motion died with a 2-2 voted.