Washington County Budget panel approves balanced 2017-2018 budget

Zach Vance • Updated Jun 14, 2017 at 11:14 PM

It was only a week ago that the Washington County Budget Committee was facing a $1.34 million deficit for the upcoming budget, due in large part to a projected $1.97 million increase in the county employee health plan.

But on Wednesday, after receiving a revised projection from its consulting firm, the total net projected cost decreased from $7.24 million to $6.27 million, allowing the panel to officially balance its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

TIS Insurance Services, the consulting firm hired by the county, projected Blue Cross Blue Shield claims would run approximately $5.59 million, rather than the $6.68 million originally projected.

Mayor Dan Eldridge said the savings were achieved by increasing the cost of premiums. 

“We’re paying more in reinsurance premiums, and as a result, our insurance consultant is projecting that the county will incur less in actual health benefit expenses,” Eldridge said. “It was just a matter of buying more reinsurance.”

The current insurance cost projection is still a 19 percent increase over the current year’s expense to cover roughly 450 employees.

With a balanced budget, the committee then filled out its appropriations resolution needed to actually approve the 2018 fiscal year budget.

The allocations included $40,163,100 toward the county general fund; $8,354,000 toward the road upkeep fund; $11,802,521 for the debt service fund; $259,000 for rural debt service; $1,730,000 for solid waste and sanitation; $19,300 for the drug fund; $28,553,684 for the capital projects fund; $66,790,418 for the general purpose school fund; $3,094,000 for nutrition funding; and $3,485,744 for the federal project fund.

Eldridge commended Finance Director Mitch Meredith for his work on this year’s budget.

“The challenge this year is we didn’t have any growth in the revenue (and) we had a really big surprise with a $2 million proposed increase in health benefit costs,” said Eldridge, who called it the toughest year, financially, since being elected.

“To work that down to an amount that could actually be absorbed into the budget and still be able to present a balanced budget to the County Commission, it’s quite frankly been a Herculean effort on (Meredith’s) part because he’s the one who’s done this.”

During the tail-end of Wednesday’s meeting, committeemen did agree to revisit a few special requests for funding public safety needs.

Six volunteer fire departments are requesting about $425,000 to hire two firefighters at each station to provide protection coverage Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., when most volunteers are at work.

“Which are the hours when they have the most difficulty having volunteers who are able to respond since the majority are at work,” the mayor said.

The fire departments making the request included Fall Branch, Gray, Embreeville, Limstone, Nolichuckey and Sulphur Springs.

“One thing we all understand and agree on is public safety is our first priority,” Eldridge said. “That’s really what has driven this whole process to get it to the point its at right now.”

The entire panel was supportive of the addition, but all members acknowledged the difficulty of finding enough money to accommodate the request.

“It’s a tremendous amount of money to fund when we don’t have any new revenue, but because public safety is our first priority, we’ve got to do everything we can to figure out how to make it work,” Eldridge said.

Commissioner Mark Larkey and Committee Chairman Joe Grandy did mention the possibility of shifting some nonprofit funding, but Eldridge said that doing so likely wouldn’t be enough to fund the new firefighter position annually.

“The nonprofits won’t pay for that. It will have to have its own source of revenue to pay for it,” Eldridge said.

The Washington County Emergency Communications District also made a special request for $74,566 to enhance dispatching procedures and staffing, while the Washington County/Johnson City EMS made two requests: $81,000 for additional staff and $75,000 to launch a capital projects fund to make large purchases.

Between now and the next County Commission meeting, Eldridge and Mitch Meredith will analyze the budget once again to flag any potential expense items that could be removed to help pay for the public safety requests.

The budget will now be published before a public hearing at the June 26 meeting of the County Commission.

“Between now and that meeting, we’re going to look at what the reoccurring funding options are,” Eldridge said.

The Budget Committee will meet again June 21 at 8 a.m.

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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