Commissioners Battle Over County Budget

Possible layoffs and a reduction in employee benefits are just two of the solutions proposed by the Smith County Commissioners Court Monday as a way to balance the county's budget.

The court approved a preliminary budget, that included those cuts, in a meeting Monday morning. However, that approval is not without some controversy.

At the center of the issue is the county's 2005 fiscal year budget. Commissioners spent more than two hours going back and forth on the issue, in the end they approved, 3-2, a version some say is unfriendly to county employees.

"I don't think we have any choice, we cannot continue to fund everything that comes down the pipe, it is not government's responsibility to do so," said County Judge Becky Dempsey.

The budget also calls for a reduction in benefits for nearly 100  retirees. Dempsey said it's a move that must be made.

"There are many taxpayers in our community that do not have access to healthcare, they don't have heath insurance they, don't get a raise every year, it doesn't really present a good picture if we're providing those same types of services to our employees and yet many people in our community that don't have access to that."

Commissioners JoAnn Hampton and Don Pinkerton voted against the proposed budget. They are throwing their support behind an alternate budget, one prepared by the county's auditor.

The two proposals are drastically different. The preliminary budget approved today calls for 13 employees to lose their jobs and a reduction in retiree benefits. It calls for a freeze of employee salaries and the elimination of some public service contributions. The budget would maintain a $2 million dollar balance in the county fund reserve.

The alternate budget would require no layoffs, no reduction in benefits and a 3% increase in salary for all employees. It would cut 10% from all public service contributions and leave $1.2 million in the fund reserve.

A final budget won't be approved until the end of the month. Hampton hopes changes are made.

"It does say to our employees that we don't value them and as a commissioner I do value the employees of this county."

Also Monday, a group of district judges in Smith County released a statement saying they would like the alternate budget to be reviewed. All involved say there is room for movement on this issue.

A public meeting to discuss the proposed budget is set for next Monday at 6:30 p.m. Commissioners aren't set to approve a final budget until September 27th.

Chris Gibson, reporting