Mandates pinch county budgets

Published 9:20 am Tuesday, June 9, 2009

WINTON – It’s hard to place the numbers at the bottom of a financial spreadsheet when the paper keeps moving.

That’s the dilemma facing Hertford County Manager Loria Williams as she attempts to put the final touches on the 2009-10 county budget.

If dealing with a downturn in revenue and an upswing in operational costs are not enough, Williams now faces at least two unfunded mandates from the state. Both come at a time when state officials are dealing with at least a $3 billion shortfall in balancing their budget.

According to information from the North Carolina County Commissioners Association (NCCCA), Williams said the state will no longer pay counties $18 per day, per inmate housed in county detention centers who have been there at least 30 days, have been sentenced and are awaiting transfer to a state correctional facility.

“The $18 per day we receive from the state on each of the inmates meeting that criteria doesn’t come close to matching the costs we incur daily to house inmates at our jail, but it did help reimburse some of our costs,” Williams said.

Williams added that $40 is the estimated cost of housing one inmate for one day.

“(Hertford County) Sheriff (Juan) Vaughan and I will sit down and put pencil to paper to see exactly what this state mandate will wind up costing us,” Williams said.

She added that the Hertford County Detention Center is an 88-bed facility that normally exceeds capacity on any given day.

Meanwhile another unfunded mandate fell by the wayside.

According to David F. Thompson, Executive Director for the NCCCA, thanks to a concerted lobbying effort from county officials across North Carolina, the House Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday did not include a proposal that would have shifted responsibility for certain misdemeanants to counties from its final budget report. The proposal, which was included in the initial draft provided to committee members and the public on Monday, would have required counties to house misdemeanants who have sentences of up to 180 days – a move that would save the state millions of dollars but would wreak havoc on already over-crowded county jails and prove costly to counties to implement.

However, that same subcommittee did approve the elimination of the $18 a day reimbursement to counties for prisoners with sentences of 30-90 days. This will cost counties an estimated $10 million in each of the next two years.

Williams has also learned that a proposal within the NC House Health and Human Services Appropriations bill will close 17 state-supported Child Support agencies. Hertford and Bertie counties are jointly served by one such agency through an office located in Ahoskie. That proposed legislation has cleared the subcommittee level and may go before the full House Appropriations Committee as early as today (Tuesday). It is expected to save the state $4.1 million and would take affect in January of next year.

If that proposal is approved, Williams said it is to her understanding that Hertford County could choose either one or two options – staff child support services through the Hertford County Department of Social Services or reimburse the state for the staff currently working the program at the Ahoskie office.

Williams said whichever route she takes will require county funds, money not previously budgeted.

“As of right now I can’t tell you which way we’ll go if this Child Support issue becomes another unfunded mandate for us to absorb financially,” Williams noted. “It’s an issue that needs additional research to see which way is the most cost effective.”

The Hertford County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a public hearing on the 2009-10 county budget for 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 15 during the regularly scheduled meeting.

Meanwhile, the Gates County Board of Commissioners has approved a resolution that opposes the closing of its Child Support Service Center. Gates is served by the Albemarle office, one which also covers Camden, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.

The 17 state-supported Child Support agencies serve 28 counties throughout North Carolina as well as the Cherokee Reservation. DSS (Department of Social Services) offices in the remaining 72 counties handle child support in their respective areas.