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By MARTY FINLEY email@example.com
HARDIN COUNTY — Fiscal Court members on Thursday agreed to postpone the first reading of the county’s 2009-10 budget to its next voting meeting, but that didn’t stop court members from tweaking Judge-Executive Harry Berry’s original proposal.
The changes came on the revenue side with court members voting to reduce anticipated tonnage at Pearl Hollow Landfill from 240,000 tons to 180,000 tons, which will affect the budget’s proposed revenue by nearly $700,000.
Bill Brandenburg made the recommendation to lower expectations because he said he felt the proposal was “grossly” exaggerating the impact landfill revenues will have this year, possibly by 25 percent or more.
Instead, he encouraged the court to look at the monthly projections the landfill has been producing and adjust revenue expectations accordingly, which Brandenburg said falls between 150,000 and 170,000 tons.
“Why don’t we just face reality,” he said.
Berry agreed that 240,000 tons was an optimistic number, but said it was not out of the realm of possibility for the county to reach this amount. Berry said reducing the revenues would also mean balancing the budget on the expenditures side, either by making up the difference through general reserve funds or cutting expenditures drastically.
Brandenburg continued to hammer his point, calling on the court to “face the music” and admit it is facing a deficit budget this year from the economy’s decline.
He also recommended tapping into reserves if necessary to cover expenditures.
Berry voted yes “in a spirit of cooperation,” but warned against leaning on reserves in future years because allocations of this size could deplete the funds and leave the county scrambling to find ways to balance the books.
The county has about $12.7 million in total reserve funds, Berry told the court in late April, but only about $4.9 million of the money are not earmarked for a specific use.
The reduction in funding thins out a budget already low on fat, with Berry declaring it one of the leanest since 2003. The original proposal placed the budget at about $32 million — $2.8 million lighter than the previous fiscal year. However, Berry had pointed out the positives of his proposal, which avoided higher or new taxes and originally shied away from reserve funds.
“It’s a budget about as skinny as you can make it,” Berry said.
Shifting the debt. The landfill’s expenditures have been a concern since former operator Rumpke refused to continue guaranteeing 300,000 tons each year. Under the previous contract, Rumpke was obligated to meet its goal, and the county was paid according to the agreement.
However, a renegotiation of the contract ended with a new bid process and a new waste hauler, Santek Environmental, taking over in October. However, both Santek and Rumpke alerted the court that it could not guarantee tonnage based on new factors, such as higher fuel prices.
The county for months has been looking for measures to offset the loss, and Berry proposed discounts at the landfill to attract more business.
Now, Berry is asking the court to consider refinancing the county’s debt burden for the landfill by extending the debt service from 10 to 20 years.
Berry told the court his office is working with outside consultants to determine the feasibility of borrowing the money, paying off the notes and refinancing.
If possible, Berry said the county could reduce its annual $2.5 million debt service and its break even goal of 270,000 tons per year to something more manageable.
For instance, Berry said the payment for the upcoming fiscal year could be reduced from $2.5 million to about $1.4 million, which would include a payment of $326,136 to pay off the lease from 2004-2009. The 2010-2011 fiscal year would be closer to $2 million, but would include an additional debt payment obtained from a planned expansion that will cost about $5 million.
Berry said refinancing makes sense because projections show the landfill has the potential to be used for another 75 years or so.
Brandenburg also expressed enthusiasm for the idea, and he said this would be one way to provide some relief from burgeoning expenditures.
ON ANOTHER NOTE
The court also voted, 3-1, to cut funding to the Morningside Senior Center from $5,000 to $3,000 in the proposed budget. Commissioner Bill Hay recommended the cut, but Judge-Executive Harry Berry said he did not support decreasing funding for the facility. In fact, he said, the court probably should increase funding to the program.
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762.