For the first time in five years, Stark County commissioners can put away their axes, scalpels or any other figurative tool used to cut county government expenses.
Thanks to a voter-approved, eight-year sales tax for criminal justice operations and a rebounding economy, the three-member board has 26 percent more revenue available this year to distribute to the more than 20 offices and agencies that rely on the county’s taxpayer-supported general fund and sales-tax-supported criminal justice fund. The $62 million in revenue is also nearly $5 million more than what county elected officials and department heads say they need to operate this year.
Still, many county departments likely won’t get everything they want. Commissioners Thomas Bernabei, Janet Weir Creighton and Richard Regula say they want to tackle some of the long-range drainage and building improvements that have been neglected over the years due to lack of money.
“We have an eight-year window to show taxpayers that we are good stewards of their money,” said Regula, a Republican. “We need to get the jail back up to speed and invest in our infrastructure.”
Commissioners plan to unveil their budget decisions within a week. They must finalize the budget by March 31.
Heading into this year’s budget hearings, commissioners suggested that each elected official and department head submit a funding request that started with how much the department needed to operate in 2011 and added the amount it would cost to give employees a 2 percent raise and the cost to cover the additional pay period that occurs this year.
Any proposed increase above that amount — whether it be for staffing, equipment or facility improvements — would have to be justified, commissioners warned.
A review of each budget request shows that nearly every department asked for something above the commissioners’ budget guideline.
Nearly every department asked for new computers or other technology upgrades. One of them requested new digs. About half of the departments budgeted for new employees or want to begin paying existing employees with money from the general fund rather than their fee-supported revenue sources.
Seven departments — the coroner, clerk of courts, prosecutor, sheriff, board of elections, veterans service commission and common pleas court, believe their employees deserve more than a 2 percent raise. Common Pleas Court judges sought a 4 percent raise; the rest asked for 3 percent.
Common Pleas Administrator Marc Warner told commissioners during the court’s budget hearing last month that judges haven’t given an across-the-board raise since 2008 while employee’s health care contributions have increased from 3 percent in 2008 to 10 percent. He also said the court has taken on expenses, such as half the cost to renovate the former Frank T. Bow Federal Building, that traditionally would not be considered its responsibility.
Judge Taryn L. Heath added that many court employees have taken on additional duties without additional pay. She pointed to the Honor Court for veterans and active-duty service members that began in July 2011 without an increase in staff.
Page 2 of 3 - “We have unsung heroes on our court staff,” Heath said. “... It’s people on staff stepping up and putting in extra time without additional compensation. We could have easily said this program needs a team of five to seven employees, but we didn’t say that.”
Commissioner Creighton, who acknowledged that the court has the authority to mandate its funding level, said most departments could attest to employees who’ve gone above the call of duty.
“We’re trying to hold the line, at least the first year out,” she said. “... We’re not opening the trough.”
Rather than request a higher wage hike this year, Family Court judges have asked for $10,000 to initiate a study that compares employee salary and benefits in the public and private sectors.
Beyond existing employees, department leaders also have asked for extra money to replenish their ranks, which haven’t fully recovered from the layoffs that began in 2010. Budget figures show the requests collectively would add the equivalent of 80 more full-time employees to the general fund and criminal justice fund payroll expenses.
More than half of the new hires would be for the sheriff’s office, which is trying to boost its employee levels so it can reopen sections of the county jail that were closed in December 2010 when then-Sheriff Timothy Swanson didn’t have enough staff to guard the inmates due to layoffs.
Before retiring as sheriff earlier this month, Swanson told commissioners he needed 43 additional employees at a cost of $2.4 million to fulfill the promise made to voters during the campaign for the sales tax and open the jail to its 501-inmate-bed capacity. The jail has remained at the 400 beds since July.
Sheriff George T. Maier said Friday he likely will hire more corrections officers and fewer deputies than what Swanson had planned, due to the office’s difficulty in hiring qualified candidates. Corrections officers, who are paid less than deputies, can work only inside the jail and cannot be used for road patrol.
Maier, who hopes to fully reopen the jail within three months, doesn’t yet know how the shift in hiring strategy will affect the office’s funding request.
Prosecutor John Ferrero has asked commissioners for additional money to fill the 14 vacant positions in his office. He said some township officials the office must represent under law have complained about waiting months for legal answers and advice.
“Those are the people that we asked to pass the sales tax,” Ferrero told commissioners during his budget hearing. “They’re now saying, ‘What about us?’ It’s important that we keep them happy. Seven years will be coming up real soon.”
Hiring 14 employees would bring Ferrero’s staff to 66 workers, which is the same number of employees he had in 2010.
Page 3 of 3 - IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS
Several large improvement projects also are included in this year’s budget requests, including:
• The Stark County Board of Elections is asking for $100,000 to move its operations from 201 Third St. NE to the Cohen-Joliet building at 3525 Regent Ave. NE. Board members said the 25,000-square-foot building, formerly used by the Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities, has its own parking lot, is handicapped-accessible, located on a bus route and has loading bays that would be ideal for handling voting machines. The board had sought the move in 2010, but the plans stalled due to lack of funding.
• The Stark County Veterans Service Commission included $200,000 in its budget request so it can hire employees from the county recorder’s microfilm division to transfer more than 70,000 of its files to microfilm. The recorder plans to hire two employees to complete the projected two-year-long project.
• Both the county coroner and sheriff say the roof at the Stark County Safety Center need to be repaired, but neither know how much the expense could be. The sheriff’s office has asked for commissioners to hire a company that specializes in building and facility maintenance to evaluate the center.