Barrow budget takes center stage

WINDER - Tuesday's Barrow County Commission meeting lived up to the expectation that it would focus largely on the county's increasingly dire financial situation.

Before the first contentious budget item arose for discussion, Commissioner Larry Joe Wilburn seized the moment once Chairman Danny Yearwood invited opening public comment. Wilburn criticized the weeks taken to ratify the county's budget committee, particularly the expense of legal opinion he felt the commission sought needlessly.

"We're spending a lot of time on mundane things," he said, "Folks, we've got a crisis in Barrow County. ... We're trying to stamp out ants, and if we're not careful, elephants are going to stampede us."

Like many counties, Barrow projects a budget shortfall and reserves already are being tapped just halfway through the fiscal year ending in September, county Chief Financial Officer Beth Horacek said. The commission Tuesday delved into several challenging money matters, including amounts owed to nearby counties for prisoners' temporary board and medical care, funding of victim service groups and the increase of previously frozen pay for paramedics.

Specifically, the commission approved payment of nearly $69,000 owed to Hall and Oconee counties for prisoner board and medical care. The board was assured by the Sheriff's Office, however, that Barrow's recently completed jail will eliminate such expenses hereafter, except for the cost of three prisoners currently in Augusta for mental evaluation.

County District Attorney Brad Smith spoke on behalf of Peace Place and three other victim services groups funded by a 5 percent surcharge on county fines. Peace Place, primarily a domestic violence shelter, was given the $14,000 per its annual agreement. The commission also set forward a percentage division of the annual fine surcharge among Peace Place and three similar victim services groups.

The night's most pointed exchange occurred between Commissioner Steve Worley and County Human Resources Director Norma Jean Brown upon her request to increase previously frozen paramedics' pay to $14 an hour. She was disappointed, having received only two applicants for seven full- and six part-time paramedics positions advertised at the previously capped rate of $12.50 and needed the increase to lure applicants.

"I can't get medics," Brown said. "We're losing our public safety, and we have to address this."

Worley expressed concern that other departments might seek similar exceptions and cautioned against county department heads adjusting budgets.

"If we do this, any department head can adjust his budget to get salary increases ..." he said. "You can make stuff work on paper, but money only goes so far."

The commission granted Brown more money for paramedics, emphasizing the exception was for essential public safety.

The commission also:

· Ratified this year's budget committee, which met initially last week and will again today;

· Reappointed county Chamber of Commerce President Tommy Jennings to another four-year term on the Barrow Library Board; and

· Reviewed the 2008 budget audit and this year's budget projections.