County budget talks ‘going down the drain’

Published 3:28 pm Monday, August 3, 2015

Commissioners consider retirement cuts, staff eliminations

BEAUMONT — The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court is using the time remaining between now and Oct. 1 to whittle the 2015-16 fiscal year budget down as much as it can.

In the first of a series of budget workshops Monday, the commissioners looked not only at individual department requests presented during the recent county budget hearings but at long-term changes they could make to save what’s left of the reserves.

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“We have $44 million in our savings account,” Brent Weaver, Commissioner for Precinct 2, said Monday. “The questions is, do we want to dip into it and by how much? But the real problem is we can’t keep doing that. We need a long-term solution.”

Eddie Arnold, Commissioner for Precinct 1, said his fellow commissioners must examine the county budget as businessmen. Labor is always the No. 1 expense, he said, and it will be their job to reduce those costs if they want to keep a reserve worth talking about.

The commissioners discussed hiring freezes and eliminating retiree health insurance for future employees. Weaver said he would never want to negatively impact current employees, but he could get behind insurance reductions for incoming employees at a later date.

“I’d like a sample of what other counties are doing,” Michael “Shane” Sinegal, Commissioner for Precinct 3, said Monday. “Because if it’s going to be standing-room only in here, I want to be prepared.”

“But if we want to cut our budget, seriously, we have to put in a force freeze,” Arnold added. “The way we’re going right now, our reserves are going down the drain. Let people tighten their belts like everyone else has, historically speaking. Put in a force freeze and only let a select number of these positions get hired back — if those positions are absolutely necessary.

“Our turnover rate is about 10 percent, so roughly 100 employees every year. For benefits and salaries together, each of our employees is averaging us $70,000 a year. If we don’t hire back those 100 employees that leave us, we’d save $7 million a year. I know that’s radical, and we wouldn’t be able to not hire back all 100 of those positions. But I want to put it in perspective of how much these people are costing us long-term.”

Everette “Bo” Alfred, Commissioner for Precinct 4, said the commissioners have no legal stance to tell elected officials they can’t hire someone to fill a vacant position. But the department heads are subject to “the pleasure of the court.”

“We need to cut all these back doorways out. It’s what’s giving us heartburn. It’s time to ask these departments the tough questions,” Alfred said. “It’s time to make the tough decisions and it’s time to cut with a clear conscience.”

The commissioners eliminated every request for new personnel and each salary increase that did not reflect a “cost neutral” change. Some departments found money within their own budgets to provide salary increases to their employees, and those requests were left in the budget by the end of Monday’s workshop.

“We’re here talking — I hate to say ‘doom and gloom’ — but we’re not in a real good position right now,” Weaver said. “We’re not dying either, but if we’re going to balance this budget we have three options. We can either raise taxes — and none of us wants to even say that out loud, let alone vote for it — we can cut positions or we can dip into the reserve fund.”

Arnold said cutting positions would be the most effective way to balance the county budget, but he knew such a stance would be met with opposition.

“We’re looking at every single thing we can to streamline the business and make it more efficient,” Arnold said. “I’d like all of our departments to go through their own budgets and their own employees and see if there’s room for consolidation or realignment of duties.

“We need to let them know there’s an opportunity to trim those budgets and make appropriate staffing changes, or we might have to go through each department ourselves next year and make those changes for them.”

Sinegal said he hopes he retires before “it comes down to it,” but he didn’t see much hope for prolonging a tax raise or employee cuts much beyond his time on the court.

“I’m telling you, from what I’m hearing today, I believe we’re all leaving this to a younger court. Everybody’s scared to say the ‘T’ word, but we’re losing options,” Sinegal said. We can’t continue to pull from our reserves much longer, so eventually this court is going to be backed into a corner. It’ll have to either cut positions or raises taxes. I just hope I’m not still on this court when it reaches that point.”

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said the county is operating with 43 less employees than it did in 2001. But with the rising cost of health insurance and “unfunded mandates” that continue to trickle down from the state legislature, he said, the county may have to reduce its girth even more.

“If in three years we’ve done everything we can and it hasn’t solved this, we’ll definitely be put into a corner,” Arnold added. “Woe is us if we have to decide between a tax increase or employee eliminations.”

Twitter: @crhenderson90