Summer, and the Livin' is Uneasy (But Don't Die--Body Bags are Skyrocketing): Dade Sings the

District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin defends his budget as telejournalist Alex McAlpin duly chronicles the moment for posterity, and the remote crowd.

Budget-finalizing time in Dade County is rarely a jolly season, but this one seems grimmer than usual as the clock ticks toward a special called meeting to approve the budget this Thursday, June 21, and projected expenses top expected revenues by $730,500.

County Clerk Don Townsend, who had been wrestling the numbers for weeks, said after a preternaturally long budget meeting last Thursday, June 14, that he and the county commission will continue to hunt for revenue and look for ways to cut expenses, but: “We’ve raked this thing hard the last couple of days.”

It got raked some at the June 14 meeting, too, as department heads stood up to justify their budgets, thank the commission for its support, and in some cases express polite protest at the meagerness of their share.

Annette Cash, who heads up Dade Transit, pointed out that her program was for the most part federally funded, yet it saw no increase when the Feds gave the program a raise. “If we’re getting that 5 percent, we should get at least 2 or 3 percent for our drivers,” she said.

Ms. Cash said she had a driver who’d been on the job for 11 years and made $11 an hour.

But as Townsend had said earlier, a planned 2 percent raise for county employees had bitten the dust in the last round of number crunching. “We tried to leave in half a percent but we took it out today,” he said.

Still, rising employee costs were a reality across all departments. Almost all department heads complained about dramatic hikes in employee health insurance--$8700 in the tax commissioner’s office alone, reported Angie Galloway of that department. “We’ve cut our part-time to offset some of that,” she said.

Schools Superintendent Jan Harris (in flippy white skirt and flirty ankle straps) thanks the commission for splitting the cost of SROs in the schools with the B of E. Also pictured are, from left, Carolyn Bradford, school board chair, and Dade High and Dade Elementary principals James Fahrney and Tracy Blevins.

In addition to the health insurance spike, Dade had agreed in the face of increased school shootings nationally to split the cost of two additional school resource officers (SROs) with the school board—the two entities were already splitting the cost of one at SRO at Dade High, and Dade was already picking up the tab for one at Dade Elementary—so that for the 2018-19 school year there will be one per school. Dr. Jan Harris, schools superintendent, addressed the county commissioners at the June 14 meeting to thank them for that, and so did the school principals. “We’re extremely grateful you value student safety as much as we do,” said Tracy Blevins, principal of Dade Elementary.

Magistrate Judge Joel McCormick had asked for $3100 for a part-timer to fill in so that his one office employee could have an occasional day off. “We may have someone in-house that can do that,” said Executive Chairman Ted Rumley.

Dade Jailer Joseph Chambers and Sheriff Ray Cross explained another jail employee was needed so that the county can make extra income by housing inmates for other counties. Townsend gave the figure of that extra income as $200,000 yearly.

Other expenses were also up. Emergency Services Director Alex Case stressed the need for improved computer security. Click on invoices, he said, and you download yourself a computer virus. “They’re penetrating through our firewalls,” he said. He also spoke of radio system upgrades.

Roads boss Billy Massengale said rocks and asphalt were going “through the roof,” and Don Townsend, touching on the coroner’s office budget, said: “Let me tell you, body bags are skyrocketing.”

Unfunded mandates also cost: By law, said Townsend, Dade must pay the same per diem to the coroner for picking up bodies or dropping them off as a state senator would earn. Judge Christina Graham gave judicial circuit court reporters a raise, and Dade must pay its share of that.

And speaking of courts, District Attorney Buzz Franklin put in an appearance to say costs were going up in his office, too. “There is a steady increase in our caseload and workload,” he said. The DA’s office tried 4000 cases last year and expects to try 5000 this year.

Lecia Eubanks, director of the Cherokee Regional Library, of which Dade’s library is a branch, also addressed the commission. “We need full-time people in the library,” she said.

With all the talk of health insurance rising in the county, Ms. Eubanks reminded the commission the library didn’t hire full-timers because it couldn’t afford the $10,000 hit for insurance. Result? It had been through three youth educators in a couple of years and expected to lose the current one soon. Only Marshana Sharp, the library manager has health insurance, and she has not been paid as a full-timer though it is fairly certain she puts in the hours.

The library stays busy all week but it's insane on Thursday, when families crowd in for the popular Summer Reading program. It is still closed on Mondays after the school board slashed funding in 2012 and never fully restored it.

The county commission did add $13,900 to the library budget this year, boosting its contribution from $73,700 to $87,600. It looks like more on paper, explained Clerk Townsend, because the county moved $30,800 in line items it had been paying routinely to the library’s budget from other sections—custodial services, building repairs, property and fidelity insurance and supplements—for the purpose of making it clear to the Trenton City commission and Dade Board of Education, the other two taxing agencies the library depends on for local support, how much the county is kicking in.

In 2012, the school board abruptly ducked out from under its share of library funding, zeroing out all support overnight in a move that shuttered the library all but three days a week. Both the county and city governments have steadily increased their own contributions to the library since then, and after two years of contributing nothing the school board has begun chipping back in in slowly increased increments though it has never restored its full share. For FY 2018 the B of E is giving the library $25,000, still way down from the $38K it gave previously but a little better than its $21,900 the year before. The library has now opened for more days of operation but is still closed on Mondays.

Ms. Eubanks said that with this year’s better funding, Ms. Sharp in any case will be made officially full-time.

But back to the overall budget picture: The takeaway after department head after head had said their pieces was that they felt they had done what they could to cut. “We’ll have a shortage,” said Clerk Townsend.

What to do? Maybe there’s growth to cover the shortage, said Townsend. The next step of the budget process is to finalize the tax digest. If property values have grown enough, they will generate more in taxes without raising the millage rate. Lacking that, the county commission would have to raise the rate—always about as popular with voters as pustules—make more cuts or dip into the fund balance.

“We have $1.4 million in our fund balance that we could use,” said Townsend. “I don’t want to.”

Anyway, he said, that's out of his pay grade. “I don’t make the decision,” said Townsend. “The commissioners make that decision.”

Again, what that decision is may be revealed this Thursday, June 21, when the commission is scheduled to consider the budget for approval at a special called meeting at 5 p.m. in the Dade Administrative Building.

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