Forrest County budget remains on even keel

By BETH BUNCH,

Forrest County taxpayers will not bear the brunt of a tax levy for the upcoming fiscal year as no millage increase was sought. The budget stands at $78.675 million, which consists of $55.498 million in total revenue and a beginning cash balance of $23.177 million.

Forrest County school district taxpayers outside Petal and Hattiesburg will see a $7 decrease in taxes, while those in Hattiesburg and Petal will see a $10 increase for Fiscal Year 2018. The increase is based on $100,000 of valuation.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, the board voted unanimously on a budget that begins with significantly less in the county’s coffers as it enters a new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

“Depending on where you live in the county you might see a small decrease or slight increase if you live in one of the municipalities,” said Board President David Hogan. “But everybody will be paying the same amount they did last.”

Hogan said the Board is proud there is no increase.

Of the proposed revenue stream, the bulk of funds, about 58 percent, $32 million comes from taxes, while federal sources make up 18 percent and other sources 10 percent.

The county is receiving approximately $12 million in federal funds to construct safe rooms at the county’s 12 schools across. All preliminary engineering work is complete and construction should begin in the new fiscal year.

As far as expenditures, public safety accounts for 36 percent, followed by general government at 27 percent and public works at 17 percent.

Because of last year’s $5.4 million settlement in the Bivens lawsuit, the county was required to pay the settlement out of the general fund, rather than borrowing the funds, which hurt their carryover balance.

While municipalities are allowed to borrow funds to pay such lawsuit settlements, county governments are not.

“We are trying to make up for those losses,” said Hogan. “One of the ways is paying off the multipurpose center this fiscal year, which is a positive thing.” The county had carried a 15-year note on that facility. 

Hogan boasted of approximately $22 million in new growth in the county, $17 million of which is new growth.

“Those businesses and taxes will be on the tax rolls, so we’ll benefit from those,” he said.

However, an increase in the county’s healthcare plan will require some changes to county employees’ insurance.

“Every time you make a step or two forward, you have to take a step back.”

Earlier during the meeting, representatives from Forrest Healthcare came before the board to talk about the county’s renewal of the healthcare insurance plan for its 400 employees for FY18.

“In order to renew our healthcare plan as it is today for next year, we would see an increase of more than $300,000 in premiums,” said Hogan.

“We basically had two choices – 1. implement employee contributions, which we did or 2. cut their benefits, which we do not like to do and did not want to do. So, rather than raise deductibles, copays and so forth, we decided to implement an employee contribution of $10 per pay period.”

Hogan said this approximately $240,000 paid annually by employees, “something we haven’t had in the past and hate having to do, should help offset the increase.”

Because the county collects the majority of its funding for the year through taxes, which are collected at the beginning of the year, the county must operate from the start of its new fiscal year until that time (October through February) on its beginning cash balance.

County Financial Officer Penny Steed, who presented the budget, said the county is required to have “a significant carryover balance.”

“We are a lot different than municipalities,” she said. “In county government you have to operate from October through February, so you’re operating a good five months there with no real income coming in. Our money comes from tax levies, basically, and we don’t get that until about the middle of February when January settlements are made by the tax collectors.

“Whereas municipalities, their biggest incomes on sales taxes are coming in during these months. They are operating on this money, so they don’t have to have as large of a carryover as we do. We have to have that in order to operate these offices and operations during this time.”

Hogan said the county doesn’t want to get in a position to have to borrow money to pay its bills until tax money starts rolling in.

“Fifteen million dollars would be a low number for a carryover amount,” he said “Twenty million is an even  safer number.”

Steed said the year that is drawing to a close has been an adjusting year for the county, trying to recover from the cost of the lawsuit settlement.

“We’ve been very diligent on this and believe we will be able to make our budget and start working toward getting some of those funds back in our carryover balances,” Steed said.