Saturday, August 18, 2007

Budget Workshop 8/08/07

Editorial Commentary

By Richard E. Noble

[This was a editorial that appeared this past week in The Franklin Cronicle. I think it has significance on a national basis because there seems to be a movement all over the country that is heading in this unfortunate direction. In any case this is a little of what is happening in our tiny neighborhood.]

Due to numerous unsigned irate editorials and a recent inflammatory letter to the editor from the president of The Concerned Citizens of Franklin County to a local newspaper, the annual budget workshop began with a rather dire warning from Chairman Crofton as to order and procedure. Mr. Crofton (and others including myself) were obviously expecting a rather ruckus day of festivities at this years usually boring budget workshop.
The first item on my agenda was to check the security. I was expecting to see the building surrounded with possibly a few FBI snipers on the roof and any number of police with gasmasks in place and brandishing body shields—somewhat as one would see in Miami, Washington D.C. or London, Paris, or Rome at a “secret” meeting of World Bank executives. I was very disappointed to see none but four or five of the usual and ordinary police staff. And none of the attending participants in this “riot” were sporting orange hair or any visible tattoos or body art of any kind. In fact most looked rather well cared for and it would be my guess that none of the attendees had missed too many meals in their recent past. Actually now, in retrospect, this was more like a local chapter meeting of the tenth annual “bean counters” convention in DesMoines, Iowa.
The large old Court House auditorium was reasonably populated but once again, nothing like what I had been led to expect. There were no crowds flowing down the stairway or out onto the sidewalks as I often remember from my riotous days as an oysterman and seafood worker. Not only that but a good many of the crowd were actually County staff members, department heads and helpers, general county workers and a reasonable group of representatives from the various local agencies seeking funds from the County rather than opposed to county spending. But the local tax watch movement was represented, apparently with its most outspoken members being from the Island.
Very much to my great surprise the event appeared to be more of a county worker celebration than a chastisement. Nearly every department head was praised, lauded and given “kudos” for their exemplary service. I was completely befuddled. Even Richard Harper, Vice president of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, was full of praise and very warm and inspiring remarks for several of our County Department Heads. I must admit, being the sensitive type that I am, I got a little choked up and a lump came to my throat and a tear to my eye as I listened to Richard heap praise onto Marsha Johnson, Clerk of Courts, Doris Gibbs, Elections Supervisor, and most shocking of all … Sheriff Mock of all people.
Actually there were only three or four areas where I noticed that the tax protestor crowd became somewhat agitated. Most obvious was Mr. Colvert and the much beat-up-on Community Hospital issue—Weems, whether we like it or not is at this moment a “Community Hospital”.
Once again an individual came forward from the audience, without shame or apparent personal self-respect, to criticize the Hospital Board for providing Health care insurance to the doctors, nurses, and other dedicated hospital workers. I realize that I am a horribly unbalanced person, filled with numerous prejudices and unfounded hatreds, but even I in my depravity, and miscreant being as a citizen of this little community find it shameful that we would keep a “Community Hospital” open, even temporarily for business and not expect the management of that facility to provide health care. My God! Sometimes I just can’t believe my ears.
Keep the hospital open or close it down if you like, but managing it with respect to the staff and employees while it is in your care, should be the least the community can do. I put it in a category equal to the humane society and anti-torture legislation. What is done in the name of private enterprise or individual ownership is one thing but what is done in the name of the community reflects upon all of us – not simply the morality of the few or the several for that matter.
The gentleman made the further analogy that since he, in his working career was not provided benefits equal to the Community Hospital staff, why should they be treated so lavishly? If I had that attitude this country would look more like southen Pakistan than the good old USA.
Next this same gentleman was brazen and callus enough to come forward to express his regret that the County Commission had spent “road paving money” on the Weems Hospital and I suppose its blatant “indigent care policies”. Some folks seem to be of the opinion that people who go to the hospital and haven’t the means to pay their bill are somewhat in the category of shoplifters, draft dodgers, or delinquent child support offenders. I am very proud to report that Mr. Crofton at the last County Commission Meeting expressed his opinion that if the decision comes down to one of having a hospital or paving roads, he would choose the hospital.
Mr. Colvert managed to mention that the hospital did service some twelve thousand cases each month and that if the community were to close down the hospital and sell off its assets, they could recoup all of the money spent thus far on the county’s investment in this health care experiment.
What I think of each time this hospital business is brought up, is that day when Mr. Lake came in with tears in his eyes and confessed to the Board and the community that he, the hospital and his company was bankrupt and that he would not be able to meet next week's payroll. Mr. Lake could hardly speak. His wife and daughters were sitting in the courtroom showing their courage and support and balling their eyes out. It was a sad day all around. He had much the same problems that Mr. Colvert seems to experiencing at the present – maybe that all hospitals are experiencing at the present.
But what if the County Commissioners at that point said, “Oh well, get the helicopters and the life flight crews over here and close that baby down. Obviously this town can’t afford a hospital.” You can say what you want but I think that we would have had some riotous days at the next few Board meetings. So I would say that it appears to be one of those “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” type deals. One way or the other some folks are left unhappy.
The next individual to somewhat prickle the hair on the necks of the locally maligned, disgruntled, overburdened and belching who were present was Doris Pendleton, Property Appraiser. She was not praised, “kudoed”—nor did she receive a round of applause when she was through. She was the only department head via the State mandated 9% budget requirement reduction to actually be forced to fire an employee. But she did and she was very unhappy. She expressed her regret publicly, much to her credit as a human being. She added that to do so was the worst thing that she ever had to do in her life.
Mr. Lockley then asked Ms. Pendleton if she couldn’t go back over her numbers and see if she could find a way to meet the reduction without firing anyone. At that point a heckler from the back of the room yelled out, “Why don’t you pay her salary, Mr. Lockley?”
Mr. Lockley rather inappropriately yelled back, “Why don’t you.”
To which there was a chorus of, “We do”, from the same area.
I wondered why this group of shallow minded hecklers presumed that Mr. Lockley wasn’t a taxpayer also? I also wondered why they felt the right to use the term “we” in uttering their insensitive remarks. They certainly weren’t speaking for me or given the right by any franchise that I am aware of to voice their personal opinion on behalf of the entire taxpaying community. I am sure that the young lady who was just dismissed pays taxes too.
There was a question of a $39,000 budget entry. This was obviously confusing. Doris Pendleton explained that this entry was some sort of state mandated requirement that had to be put in one place and then deducted in another which therefore made it of no pertinent significance to her spending. This was clearly not clear and nobody got it except possibly the accountants who may have been in attendance.
Ms. Pendleton went on to explain that her budget had to be certified to the State and thus the confusion and different format followed by her department.
People from the audience then came forward to present the case for zero based budgeting and itemization of expenses. I really thought that both of these suggestions were great ideas. I also thought how wonderful it would be if we could have this group go to Washington D.C. on behalf of Franklin County. If this type of scrutiny were placed on our federal legislators and the current administration I would guess that nobody would be getting fired in Franklin County or any other county for that matter.
Zero based budgeting requires a budget formulator to justify his/her spending on a year to year basis and not beginning with last years totals.
One citizen asked if Ms. Pendleton could itemize her spending to justify her totals. No one prior to Ms. Pendleton had been requested to meet this standard or make such a presentation.
Ms. Pendleton then stated that she was prepared to make such a presentation but added that if she was demanded to do so, she would expect that the same requirement would be asked of all the other department heads. This remark by Ms. Pendleton actually received a round of applause from the disgruntled.
The discussion then went off on a tangent and Ms. Sanders suggested that next year the County budget may be required to be cut by as much as 25 to 50 percent. I don’t know if this is a true and accurate prediction or where Ms. Sanders is getting this notion but if it is true, may I be the first to suggest that we had all better get ourselves ready to experience a major recession in the State or nation. Because if there is anyone out there who is under the impression that a 50% cut can be made in government spending without serious repercussions throughout this nation and this economy you better start boning up on your economics. It ain’t going to happen. It won’t be allowed to happen.
If it has taken twenty years for government to grow it will probably take that many years of gradual cutbacks to get it back to where you think it belongs. Large cutbacks in the government are like large cutbacks in the military or anywhere else, they are easier said than done and they are not necessarily a good thing, economically speaking.
Then we were back to the $39,000 that was in the budget but really wasn’t in the budget. Ms. Pendleton then suggested that if anyone doubted her on this issue, they could call the State Department of Revenue … Kathy Collins, 338-4448. Ms. Collins is the person who handles Ms. Pendleton’s budget before it goes to the Department of Revenue.
Unfortunately the County Engineer was not present to speak in his own behalf. If there was anything positive to be said in defense of the need for his professional services, I didn’t hear it. Alan Piece did offer some valiant phrases but Mr. Rothwell’s future looks dim.
This seemed to please the crowd at the “Coliseum”. Several people came forward to speak of their knowledge as employers but none spoke to their knowledge of the responsibilities of employers. None spoke of severance pays, the disservice being done to Mr. Rockwell, his family, and his life; or his probable financial loses due to the Community’s lack of commitment and irresponsibility. I hope Mr. Rockwell didn’t buy an overly expensive home when he arrived here. In today’s real estate market place, he will probably lose his shirt if he has to sell. Unfortunately Mr. Rockwell isn’t a box of paperclips or an idled police cruiser, or a bucket of paint. And he wasn’t just a “low-level” peon. His position was discussed and supposedly “researched” before he was put on the staff.
Frugal fiscal policy, freezes, wage caps and the rest of it are certainly inline. But disrupting people’s lives and firing anonymous or dedicated employees should not be subject to the selfish mutterings of a vindictive outspoken minority. Because a super-wealthy group of greedy, money making speculators inflated the real estate market all over the nation and the world, taking advantage of the inadequacies of the system to add to their super-wealth is no reason to run around beating up on the poor working population – even if they work for the “government”.
I’m not really sure if here on the local level there is a lot of “fat” to be cut. It seems that we are already in some mighty lean areas – like hospitals, staff, secretaries and whatnot. I wouldn’t exactly call this “fat’ or “profligate spending”. People who truly want to save taxpayer dollars ought to be reserving bus tickets for a trip to Washington D.C. or for a trip to the Pentagon – talk about trickle down! Some folks around here need to wake up! Actually a little bus trip to Tallahassee might even be more appropriate.
And last but not least, there came Sheriff Mock.
The Sheriff received a good deal of adulation, I must say, contrary to all the whispers and negative rumors that I have been hearing. Individual citizens came forward to praise his accomplishments and to speak to his benefit. But his budget was nevertheless confusing. The Sheriff seems to have so many different pockets and spending areas to contend with. There’s the prison and the department of corrections and auxiliary staffing and regular staffing and one thing after another.
The Sheriff brought his book keeper along as did Mr. Chipman from the road department. People were asking questions of the Sheriff that I know had already been answered months ago in the Chronicle. I know because I wrote them. One such question related to the profitability of our community taking on state prisoners. The Sheriff was asked to bring in that number weeks ago and he did. Our Communities absorption of state prisoners was so profitable to this community in terms of expenditures and funds received in return from the State, that Mr. Mock had even suggested absorbing 40 more state prisoners to pay for an addition to the jail or prison complex or whatever.
He too had met his required cuts by not hiring replacements for retiring officers and cutting back on services etc.
Before getting into the non-governmental and charitable outlays, Mr. Harper of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County stood and announced to the Board that his group would not criticize any of these allotments and that they would leave these decisions to the consciences and discretion of the elected officials.
That was indeed gracious of Mr. Harper and the self-appointed guardians of the community welfare and county moral commitment. I thought for sure that we were going to lose our humane society contribution or our “meals on wheels” for the elderly.
All of these type contributions were nevertheless cut by the mandatory 9%. The worst hit was the Boys and Girls Clubs who if I am not mistaken lost about $50,000.
Was everybody satisfied with the cuts and reductions? I don’t think so. Nobody likes paying taxes – any kind of taxes.