PINE BLUFF -- Losses in population and the shuttering of businesses have strained Jefferson County's budget to the point that it will result in the county going broke in as little as two years unless drastic changes are made now, County Judge Gerald Robinson said Thursday.
Robinson told county elected officials and department heads during a "state of the county" address Thursday at the courthouse that unless cuts are made, and soon, a looming financial disaster will be unavoidable.
Robinson attributed the bulk of the strain on county coffers to payroll. Of the county's $8 million annual budget, approximately $6 million, or 75 percent, goes to meet payroll and benefits for county employees, he said.
"I do believe that if we had made significant changes five or six years ago we would not be in the state we are in now," Robinson said. "We are cash strapped. Appropriations? We can appropriate all day long. That's monopoly money. What the treasury deals with is cash on hand."
In spite of a declining tax base and declining revenue over the past five years, Robinson said county employment increased from 414 workers in 2013 to 432 in 2018.
"We are still operating Jefferson County like we did when we had 20,000 people more than what we have now," he said. "We have more employees dealing with less revenue so, therefore, balance it out. We cannot continue to operate where we are."
Robinson said if the problem had been met head-on back in 2012 or 2013, it could have been dealt with through attrition.
"We don't have that luxury today," he said. "We do not have a reserve. We have no surplus money that we can reach back. God forbid we have a tornado or earthquake or anything else come through that would be catastrophic. Jefferson County will be bankrupt."
Robinson proposed cutting 10 employee positions from the payroll, which would reduce the budget by about $400,000. He asked each department to cut one position.
He also asked that elected officials and department heads identify any areas of waste that can be cut, citing vehicles, underutilized telephone and Internet accounts, and cost sharing between agencies wherever possible.
Robinson said he has cut his own budget by approximately $140,000 by eliminating part-time positions that were listed as full time, cutting county-furnished cars for elected officials, including one for the county judge's use, and scrubbing the budget to ensure the county doesn't pay for services it doesn't receive.
Robinson's proposals received a mixed response.
"You've been here almost a month and you're asking us to take people's jobs away from them already?" Justice of the Peace Delton Wright asked the county judge. "I'm not going to vote to take people's jobs. I'll support you in the stuff that you do, but taking somebody's job? I'm not going to vote for that."
"I don't know what type of business you run, but you have a responsibility to make sure that Jefferson County is fiscally sound," Robinson responded. "It's not about who's right. Companies lay off every day. Please don't have a closed mind and say, 'I'm not going to vote for something that has to be done.'"
Robinson said it is impossible for county finances to continue to sustain the number of employees on the payroll.
"We have more employees now than when we had 25,000 more people," he said.
"We just hired some people the other day," Wright responded. "Are you telling me they have to be the first ones we let go?"
"I'm not going to tell the elected officials how or who they need to cut," Robinson said. "I'm saying one person out of each office."
Wright asked Robinson if he was going to cut any of his employees.
"I've already done it," Robinson said. "I said I won't ask any elected official to do anything I'm not willing to do, and I won't. It's been done."
Justice of the Peace Ted Harden suggested that the county consider combining some services to save money, a strategy that he said has been employed in other counties.
"If you look at other counties, when they start to lose population they consolidate services," Harden said. "I'm talking about the sheriff's department and the [tax] collection department, the county clerk and the circuit clerk. You can go around a lot of the smaller counties and they've consolidated those."
Justice of the Peace Brenda Gaddy asked if there had been any consideration of reducing some full-time positions to part time.
"Instead of reducing the workforce you could have them come in two or three days a week," she said. "I don't want to see someone completely lose their job."
Justice of the Peace Alfred Carroll pointed out that even if some employees were reduced from full time to part time, those employees would still have to find other full-time jobs to retain insurance and other benefits that would be lost through a reduction in hours.
"This is something we've talked about in previous administrations and we would always kick the can down the road," Carroll said. "We weren't asked to reduce our budgets, but just to not increase them. Well, that's what got us here."
Robinson said although measures like cutting waste, sharing expenses and cutting payrolls through attrition will help bring in some savings, it won't be enough.
"At this particular point, where the rubber meets the road, we have to reduce our employees," he said.
Asked after the meeting how long the county can continue to meet its obligations if nothing is done to trim the budget, Robinson said the outlook is grim.
"We've got about two years," he said. "After that, we won't be able to meet our obligations."
State Desk on 01/18/2019
Print Headline: Jefferson County gets dire forecast; Pine Bluff speech cites bloated payroll