Last Thursday’s public hearing on Dade County’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget was--Readers, brace yourselves--sparsely attended, with the public barely represented at all and public officials affected by the budget not much better.
But that did not mean the hearing was brief. County Clerk Don Townsend presented the proposed budget in some detail, with examples, anecdotes and commentary, which the commissioners questioned and discussed in a responsible and leisurely fashion, as the afternoon wore into evening and the season from balmy spring into high summer.
Still, The Planet persisted, and was able to glean from the proceedings some points that may interest its readers.
First of all, the proposed budget is down for 2018 from $10,868,000 last year to $9,567,472, a matter of some pride to Clerk Townsend. “Two weeks ago, we were $800,000 short,” he said. “Now we’re balanced to the penny.”
Townsend (right) pointed out the budget included $305,700 for a special Dade Superior Court term this October, over and above its normal fall term of jury trials. This is to accommodate the trial of former Dade Sheriff Patrick Cannon, who has stood accused of theft and other official misconduct charges since July 2015, but whose trial has been continued from spring term to fall term over and over since then.
All of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuits recused themselves except Jon “Bo” Wood, who has retired as the Cannon case continued to pend. Now the case has been assigned to an Atlanta-area judge, Grant Brantley, who has set the trial for Oct. 23. Though a motion by Cannon’s attorney, Christopher Townley, to move the trial to some venue where the ex-sheriff is not so well known, is still pending, so far the case is scheduled to stay in Dade. And that, said County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, would be the most economical eventuality.
“If it went out of the county we’d have to double that,” said Rumley. The county, it seems, must pay for the trial wherever it takes place.
Judge Brantley has set a pre-trial hearing for Oct. 19, at which, presumably, the
matter of venue will figure.
Another interesting datum about the proposed 2018 budget is that it includes a $12,600 increase of county support for the embattled Dade County Public Library. Townsend said that increase--from $69,500 last year to $82,100 for FY2018-- will help the library deal with a spike in Teacher’s Retirement System contributions, provide a slight increase in pay for library manager Marshana Sharp and allow the library to expand its hours
The Planet contacted the library board of directors’ Donna Street for clarification. She said the proposal is not to increase the library’s open hours but to increase Ms. Sharp’s hours. At present, she like the other library employees is part-time. The increase would bump her up to 40 hours.
In any case, Towsend and the county commissioners expressed hope that the Dade County Board of Education would step forward and shoulder some of the cost. “If we can get the school board to kick in any money, that would reduce our share,” said Townsend.
The county, city of Trenton and school board for decades shared local support of the library until, in 2012, the Board of Education abruptly ducked out from under, causing the library to lay off staff and close all but three days a week. Since then, the city and county assumed more of the burden, and the board of education in cautious increments restored part of its former funding, allowing the library to expand its hours. But the library remains closed on Mondays and the school board has yet to assume its former share of funding. The school board meets tonight, Monday, June 19, and matters budgetary are on the agenda.
Another interesting and not unrelated item was a $6600 per annum proposed raise for Dade Juvenile Court Administrator Carolyn Bradford. Ms. Bradford besides her day job is the chairperson of the Dade County Board of Education and held that position in 2012 when the board made its unprecedented and widely protested decision to zero out library funding. Ironically, county commissioners decided to zero out Ms. Bradford’s own raise, which had been proposed by her presiding judge. “I’m sure she does a great job but it’s not fair to everybody else,” said District 2 Commissioner Scottie Pittman.
Townsend pointed out the county’s thrift in dealing with animal control: Dade spent only $929 last year on that particular area. Chairman Rumley was less inclined to crow: “It’s good but it’s not solving the problem,” he said. Rumley said the county had a serious animal control problem it will ultimately have to address.
Animal welfare activists have for decades tried to raise money and public will for an animal shelter in the county. At present, Dade has no facility but contracts with the city of Trenton to share its small and overused facility.
Rumley thanked Sheriff Ray Cross and Jailer Joseph Chambers--two of the few public officials present at the June 15 hearing--for keeping law enforcement costs down, but a lively discussion of inmate health care costs provided a colorful picture of that field of spending. A hemophiliac inmate had cost the jail $200,000 in medical fees, said Clerk Townsend.
“There’s not a thing we could do about it,” said Townsend. “We shipped him out as fast as we could.”
Chairman Rumley said that was the ticket. If arrestees aren’t healthy, he said: “Get ‘em out of there.”
Clerk Townsend said otherwise, the jail is doing pretty well. “Their cooking their own food saves a lot of money annually,” he said. Before the jail built a kitchen, local restaurants catered the jail’s meals, costing Dade a pretty penny but giving it an impressive culinary reputation among DUI arrestees regionwide. The jail contract was held by Randy’s Restaurant, now defunct, which was notable for baking its own bread.
Townsend quipped during the hearing that the annual Bonnaroo festival may have caused an uptick in collected fines for the county. (Planet readers may have noticed a swelling of the weekly arrest report after the weekend of June 8-11, when local law enforcement patrolling the roads racked up arrest after arrest for “Possess/w/Intent to Distribute” as well as alcohol and traffic charges.)
But questioned about it after the hearing, Townsend backpedaled, saying he doubted that arresting festival-goers made the county that much money. “If they’re here a day or two, we have to feed them,” he pointed out. In any case, Townsend said he could not speak for law enforcement as to whether any pecuniary intent lay behind the Bonnaroo traffic stops.
Along that general line of inquiry, Chairman Rumley asked Sheriff Cross how drug-related seizures of money and property came back to his department. The sheriff replied he understood it went mostly to the drug task force, with the district attorney’s office taking 10 percent off the top.
The budget is slated for finalization at a special called commission meeting at 5 p.m. this Thursday, June 22, in the Administrative Building.
“It’s always exciting to create a budget without knowing the millage rate,” said Clerk Townsend during the meeting. Later, The Planet asked h im to describe that process.
He explained that the budget was formulated from projections but that the millage rate couldn’t be set until the tax digest process is finalized this week. From there, it is determined what a mill in the county is worth, that is applied to how much need is expressed in the proposed budget, and the millage rate is extrapolated from there. “We’re hoping it will stay exactly the same,” said Townsend, and that is 8.39. If the math doesn’t work out, he said, it would be necessary to go back and make further cuts to the proposed budget.
After the budget hearing, the commissioners convened an extremely brief special called meeting. At the meeting, they approved $15,000 to purchase a used fire truck from the city of Trenton, and extended the county’s agreement with the city to coordinate providing services so as not to duplicate effort and expense.