The Associated Press
Jefferson County is looking at a $7.2 million increase in requested expenditures for the fiscal year of 2013-2014.
Budget hearings began at 9:30 a.m. Monday, with a budget overview, Mosquito Control, Community Supervision and Beaumont maintenance. Tomorrow, the hearings proceed with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, crime lab, jail, marine division, and health and welfare.
The substantial increase in requests is partially due to the drastic reduction the county made to its budget during the recession of the ‘08-’09 and ‘09-10 fiscal years, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said. In 2009 alone, the county cut $17 million from their budget by eliminating some departments entirely and reducing manpower in others, as well as deferring capital projects.
“For several years, we've really put off capital projects like building renovations, replacement of air conditioning systems, replacement of roadways,” Branick said. “Sooner or later, those things come home to roost and you're forced to fix them.”
A $900,000 increase in capital projects has come to roost this year. The county is working on building a baffle for Keith Lake Fish Pass in Port Arthur, as well as a boat ramp. The projects will cost a collective $1.1 million, and will assist in protecting 66,000 acres of marsh from saltwater intrusion.
“We need to protect the integrity of that marsh,” Branick said. “It's important economically, and it’s important in protecting us and Port Arthur from storm surge.”
The county is also looking at $450,000 in salary requests, something Branick said will be looked at very closely during the budget hearing process. A union contract with local law enforcement will cost an additional $650,000 in salary increases.
Retirement cost are also on the rise, Branick said. This is due to the county’s “pay as you go” policy — something practiced by only 6 percent of the nation’s governmental entities. The remaining 94 percent have unfunded pension liabilities, which occur unfunded pension liability when a company pays its pensions obligations to staff out of current income rather than from a separate fund to which it has contributed over time, according to the Financial Times Lexicon website. A prime example of this policy’s shortcomings is Detroit, a city with billions of dollars in unfunded liability pensions, Branick said.
“Because of the artificially low interest rate environment, the earnings of the invested funds has not been as high,” Branick said. “So to keep the retirement plan actuarially sound, the cost goes up in low interest rate environments. It's a very conservative and very healthy way, and it keeps us having a bunch of expenses down the line.”
Other expenditures are beyond the county’s control, Branick said — such as the state-mandated electronic filing in the court system. Branick said the county is looking at $180,000 in upgrades to software and servers, and another $200,000 for the actual new system.
Overall, Branick said, he is optimistic about the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
“My number one priority is that we don't spend enough money to necessitate a tax increase, and we're not going to do that,” he said. “We’re healthy financially.”