Independence County Budget Committee meets, discusses 2020 numbers

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Article by Teisha Bagwell, White River Now

The overall Independence County general budget for 2020 has a positive outlook.

The Independence County Budget Committee met Monday night and discussed multiple items pertaining to the 2020 budget including: a five percent raise to go in effect as of Jan. 1, 2020 across the board — elected officials included — for departments that can afford the raise within their 2020 budget; a motion approved to lift the hiring freeze to fill positions contained within the budget (the issue will go before the quorum court before final approval); adoption of a formal budgeting process and more.

Concerning the raise for county employees, departments that cannot provide the raise will have to work toward that as a goal for the next year. The solution for each department to reach the ability for a future raise can be through any reasonable remedy, from reducing employee hours or enacting other cuts to free up budgeted funds.

The rise in minimum wage was also discussed. Currently, the county is ahead of the curve with staying above minimum wage. The five percent raises assist in assuring the county remains ahead of the minimum wage changes.

Only two future increases in Arkansas’ minimum wage are expected in the next two years. The minimum wage will increase to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020 and to $11 an hour by Jan. 1, 2021.

County Judge Robert Griffin also mentioned the need for a maintenance tax to fund the jail, noting the county jail adds strain to the county general fund.

“The jail has eaten us alive, and that’s what really kept us squeezed out, kept us from being able to give normal cost of living raises to the employees,” Griffin said. “We have started catching back up, but we’re still probably seven percent behind, as of today. The five percent will get us a little bit closer, but to fund the jail you really need a maintenance tax.”

With new taxes applied for frequently for other purposes, Griffin addressed the challenges in finding the appropriate opportunity to introduce a tax. “It just keeps getting worse. It seems like year-to-year when you see other increases that are being thrown out there…how do you ever go to the public?” Griffin said.

“That’s the singular problem Independence County has. We built a jail back 20 years ago and did not put a funding mechanism in with it and it’s completely strangled. It’s keeping us from helping our law enforcement, if we need more deputies. It’s holding everything back,” the judge said.

All budgets were accepted as presented with the acknowledgment that line items might change, but the overall bottom line will remain the same.

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