Haralson County Commissioners last week discussed closing all the county’s waste convenience centers and revoking three paid holidays for employees in order to trim thousands from a $12.3 million budget already stretched thin by rising external costs and by mandates imposed by outside agencies.
The commissioners are faced with a July deadline of coming up with a new budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which they are determined will be set at $12.3 million, the same amount as in previous years. But as costs over which the county has no control – insurance, fuel, etc. – continue to rise within each county department, finding any fat to cut from those departments proved difficult.
Meeting in a special called work session on June 6, Chairman Allen Poole announced that the budget needs to be trimmed by about $700,000 to bring it down to that $12.3 million level. But the quickest ways to do that posed different sets of political and financial problems.
Three of the county’s biggest expenses go to the Sheriff’s Department, to Ambucare – provider of the 911 response service – and to the sanitation department.
Because the sheriff is a constitutional officer, the commissioners have no power to determine how the sheriff’s money is spent. The commission can only set aside a portion of the budget for the sheriff to administer. Currently his department receives $3 million, which covers law enforcement, jail operations and courtroom security.
Ambucare receives $635,000 of the county budget, but Chief Administrative Officer Bill Hightower made an impromptu presentation during the meeting to persuade the commissioners there was no fat to cut from the agency. In fact, he said, his agency had to write off $1.4 million last year as non-recoverable expenses.
That leaves the sanitation department, which receives $480,000 toward operating six convenience centers where county residents who don’t have a garbage pickup service can take their trash.
Given such options, shutting down the convenience centers received a great deal of attention from the commissioners, even though, as District 1 Commissioner Kenneth Smith warned, the move would be “stirring up a hornet’s nest” of adverse public opinion.
In an interview this week, Poole stressed that no decision had been made on the convenience centers, and that the move was only one of several cost-cutting measures being considered by the board. If the plan were implemented, however, Poole said the current transfer center at Waco would remain open, and that possibly a new transfer center might be opened for residents in the eastern half of the county, perhaps in the Corinth community.
If the convenience centers were closed, residents who did not with to take their trash to the transfer station would have to sign up with a private trash pick up company.
“We were talking about that – and that’s a topic of discussion,” Poole said this week. “And you know, hey, we may have to do something else.”
When budget cuts were first discussed at a preliminary budget work session the week before, Ambucare was identified as another budget item headed for cuts. But Hightower’s presentation during the June 6 meeting seemed to dissipate any such plan.
The $635,000 paid to Ambucare amounts to a subsidy, to make up for operational costs the agency does not collect from private insurance companies, or from Medicare and Medicaid. But Hightower made a persuasive argument that, due to economic and regulatory realities, such collections are way down, forcing Ambucare to eat into the subsidy and leaving very little expense to cut.
Hightower explained that in the present economy, with rising unemployment and an increase in people with no health insurance, more county residents are putting off health matters until they reach crisis levels. This, he said, has impacted his agency in two ways: an increased demand for emergency services, and less money for those services to be recouped from insurance companies.
Hightower said the big drain on his reserves were factors beyond his control, including rising costs in fuel; and he foresaw further losses due to new state and federal guidelines that take the decision of what hospital to send a patient out of Ambucare’s hands.
He said the state Department of Human Resources (DHR), following protocols laid down by the federal Centers for Disease Control, has set new guidelines that require paramedics to take patients to certain hospitals, according to the type of condition or injury they have, based on level of trauma care that hospital can provide.
Because the nearest hospitals meeting that criteria may be as far away as Atlanta or Chattanooga, this means the paramedics must either be out of the service area for hours at a time, or they must call in a helicopter ambulance.
Hightower warned that because of these regulations, paramedics would be forced to make greater use of air ambulances, which he said can increase a patient’s bill by $18,000. But ground ambulances would still have to be used if the helicopter cannot fly due to weather or other conditions.
No matter what, Hightower said, Ambucare must absorb the costs of both the uninsured, and, in the case of Medicare and Medicaid patients – which represent 65 percent of Ambucare’s transportees – the restrictions set by those agencies for covering emergency transportation.
Hightower said the collection rate for Ambucare was 43.2 percent in the last year, and although he said he is trying to close the gap, “it’s going faster than I can catch up to.”
At the end of Hightower’s presentation, Poole asked whether Ambucare can continue to operate with its current $635,000 budget. Hightower replied that it could – but that the situation could change next year.
One county expense that seems safe this year is the county library. When Poole proposed trimming the county’s $18,000 contribution to the library by $3,000, he ran into stiff opposition from District 1 Commissioner Smith and District 2 Commissioner Jamie Bennett.
Bennett said that the library was “critical to people in this community,” particularly those who rely on access to the Internet at the library in order to find jobs or further their education.
“I know they operate now on such a minimum budget that almost monthly they wonder how to pay their bills,” Bennett said. “Us cutting them could cause them to shut down.”
The library also depends on contributions from the city’s municipalities as well as grants and other sources.
However, the county historical society, which is tied to the library, may face a loss of $5,000 from its current $10,000 budget.
The county also seemed determined to shave $60,000 from the budget by cutting one third of the paid holidays for county workers.
Poole recommended cutting Martin Luther King Day, Veteran’s Day, and the day after Thanksgiving as paid holidays. In exchange, the employees could get extra time off by letting them go home a half day early the day before the holiday, but that would depend on the job they do.
The commissioners will have to hold a public meeting to approve their finalized budget.