Photo: Sonya Johnson (right) was honored for her 10 years of service as an employee of the Etowah County Revenue Department by Revenue Commissioner Becky Nordgren (left) at the County Commission meeting Sept. 20. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The Etowah County Commission passed a budget of $25 million at its September 20 meeting.
This Etowah County General Fund budget for the fiscal year of 2023 – weighing in at $25,105,654 – saw notable increases in several departments and an increase of $2,952,811 from last year’s budget of $22,152,843.
“This is probably the first time we’ve seen a $25 million budget in Etowah County,” said Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison. “And it is approximately a $3 million increase over last year’s budget. We would not have been able to do that, had it not been for about three (revenue increases).”
Those increases include revenue from Alabama’s gas tax, revenue from a property tax based on this year’s reassessments and revenue from a State Sellers Use Tax on online purchases. The latter two factor into the general fund, while the former is designated as a separate budget.
“I’ve said this before, but we need to thank (Association of County Commissions of Alabama Executive Director) Sonny Brasfield every time you see him for helping get the SSUT tax passed,” said Chief Financial Officer Kevin Dollar. “Because he was able to get that through in the legislature, we’ve had enough (revenue).”
The SSUT was passed in 2015 and most recently updated in 2019. According to Dollar, Ellison and at least one commissioner, its most recent amendment has been a lifesaver.
“If we didn’t have that, instead of sitting here at a small $58,000, getting into reserves and all, we would be $2 million short,” said District 1 Commissioner Joey Statum. “That’s the impact, including last year. We’d be $2 million short.”
Statum referred to the $58,390 at which the 2023 fiscal plan is over budget, as the county estimates $24,412,264 in revenue this year to finance its $25,105,654 in expenditures. Even as a debt, however, that amount is an improvement from last year’s negative $220,117.
Putting together a county budget is an extreme balancing act. In the words of District 6 Commissioner Craig Inzer, Jr., “You’ve got to push, you’ve got to pull. You’ve got to take somewhere, you’ve got to give somewhere, and it’s a trying time.”
By that push-and-pull rhetoric, the commission had to contend with a lot more pull on its purse strings than it could sometimes push out funding to match.
Rising costs in everything from construction materials to healthcare to garbage pickup forced the roughly $3 million spending increase.
The highest single increase by far went to the jail budget with an addition of $2,050,879.
“Therein we absorbed employees coming in from ICE, a portion of them, but also we have more on the in-house medical contract,” Dollar said.
With the Etowah County Detention Center no longer housing state ICE detainees – and thus losing significant state reimbursement funding – the bill for inmate healthcare has increased, along with staff paychecks.
Despite the fact that, according to Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton, the total cost of detention center healthcare has actually decreased, the absence of state funds has nonetheless left an expensive mark on the county budget.
The jail fund’s $2 million increase also covers rising costs in utilities, the transfer of $200,000 from general fund monies to the jail fund for healthcare costs, detention-center maintenance and a new prisoner transport van.
County funding for the sheriff’s office increased over $500,000, bringing that department’s 2023 funding to $6,949,639.
Dollar explained that the county splits costs with the sheriff’s own budgets, but that county funding covers much-increased fuel expenditures and allocations for vehicles that, while usually a regular line item, were absent from last year’s budget. The nearly $7 million also covers rising health insurance costs and what Dollar noted was a much-needed pay raise.
The gas-tax budget also provided a 2.5 percent pay raise for county employees, which several commissioners said should have been more – and would have been, if not for sharp increases in healthcare being absorbed in this year’s budget.
Commission President and District 2 Commissioner Johnny Grant said that while he “hoped we could do more” for employees, absorbing their rising healthcare costs contributes by avoiding “a more negative expression” of those expenses falling on employees.
“Thank you to the employees,” Inzer said. “We’d love to give you more. But please consider [health insurance and other benefits] when you think about your pay raise or are going, ‘Well they only gave us 2.5 percent.’ Please take into consideration some of the things we are absorbing and adding to the bottom line for you in other ways.”
The road department was budgeted to receive an estimated $1.3 million from the Rebuild Alabama Act alone, all of which is expressly earmarked for roadwork, according to County Engineer Robert Nail.
“That’s straight for roads,” Nail said. “We can’t use it in my operating budget; we can’t use it for equipment. 50 percent of it has to be contract work, or all of it has to be for roadwork or for materials on roadwork.”
Despite the strict designation of those funds, among other sources, District 4 Commissioner Tim Ramsey claimed that the county is far from paving enough local roads.
“We’ve always been obligated to pave our roads, but we’ve been paving about five, six miles a year until we got the Rebuild Alabama (funding),” Ramsey said. “Now we pave about 20. My point is, we’re not addressing our roads at the rate (we should).”
Dollar noted that “unless you’re in a county that is really growing exponentially,” all counties struggle to find funding to maintain their roads.
“I just want some more people to be concerned about it,” Ramsey said. “Maybe we don’t get it fixed, but [I am] sitting here saying, ‘OK, we’re paving six miles of road a year outside of the gas tax, and we need to be paving 40. Well, is anybody else seeing that?’”
Ramsey was the only commissioner to vote “no” on the budget’s approval. He approves the actual budget, he said, but wanted to show his concern and his zeal for the road budget.
Statum noted that while improvement is still needed, county roads are “much better than they were.” He also expressed a need to protect existing funding, especially where roads are concerned.
“We have to do everything we possibly can do to protect that because it’s going to be the gas tax and things like that (which keep the county funded),” Statum said. “Even though it’s passed already, you’re going to have people trying to get monies out of it. It’s happened before where you’ve had legislators and laws that’s happened where they’ve taken monies from the county. We’ve got to fight for what we’ve got.”
The approval of the 2023 budget came a week early. Due to some commissioners’ scheduling conflicts and an interest in expediting fiscal processes, the commission voted – with a unanimous five of five vote, District 3 Commissioner Jamie Grant having stepped out – to move the county budgets from new to current business.
The final vote approving the budgets was a four-of-five majority, with Ramsey voting ‘no’ on paving-fund principal and Jamie Grant being absent.