The Gulf County School Board, the Gulf County Health Department and now the Board of County Commissioners are realizing the impacts of what Commission chair Tan Smiley characterized Tuesday as a “shortfall in dollars.”
The BOCC met for its regular bi-monthly meeting and a primary focus was a projected budget shortfall that will surely top $500,000 and could be, several commissioners noted, as much as $1 million.
“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” said Commissioner Warren Yeager. “We will be pressed to maintain services without raising taxes.
“For the past five years that I have been on the board every year we have reduced what we are spending. We have got to think outside the box.”
While several commissioners mentioned a $1 million shortfall, Commissioner Ward McDaniel, who chairs the county budget committee, said the exact number is not yet known.
The final numbers on property values – which determines the value of the mill for property taxes – will not be available until July 1, McDaniel noted.
He saw the shortfall as somewhere between $600,000 to $750,000.
“We don’t have our numbers from the Property Appraiser yet so everything right now is kind of in a gray area,” McDaniel said. “But we are looking at a pretty significant shortfall.”
Commissioners, at least a majority, moved ahead with one proposal for potential savings by bringing probation services back in-house to be operated by staff at the jail.
Yeager argued that it would be a saving to taxpayers. He added that staff, particularly deputy administrator Michael Hammond, who also oversees the Gulf County Jail, told commissioners they could accomplish what a private company has done for 12 years.
Richard Stewart, who heads Florida Probation Services, wondered what savings taxpayers would actually see as his company operates not from property tax dollars, but from the court fees of probationers.
Stewart noted that his company actually operates at a loss in Gulf County.
“Bay County subsidizes this county,” Stewart said. “We do things for your county nobody does.”
He said probation was more than collecting fees and his company operates several programs and courses through the probation office. He said the county would be assuming liability and constitutional minefields that commissioners should be wary of.
And Commissioners Joanna Bryan and McDaniel objected to making a decision on the issue based on a one-page, several paragraph long memo from Hammond that was included in the consent agenda.
“It is a much bigger issue than just the dollars,” Bryan said. “It is well beyond a decision to make based on one piece of paper. It is hard to believe we have staff who can just pick this up.
“We haven’t seen any kind of plan how this would work. When we are going to make a change like this we need to know how. I think we need more information … Why couldn’t something have been written up for us to review.”
“We are basing a big decision on a few paragraphs,” McDaniel said.
Hammond said the issue has been long-brewing and came to a head as the county was “facing the most difficult budget year in 22 years.”
“We can run it in-house and we can run it more efficiently,” Hammond said. “The way we are going to save money is by not hiring anybody. We have the capability of running it in-house. The entire system is broken.”
Further, he said he saw no reason that the Clerk of Courts would need additional staff to handle “collecting money.”
County administrator Don Butler said county taxpayers might not see direct relief from the transition, but he said the belief among staff was taking over probation services would provide a new revenue stream of an estimated $75,000.
Additionally, taxpayers will benefit by the jail coordinating probation services to bring more fiscal efficiency to operating the jail and its inmates.
Commissioners approved the consent agenda, and the move to bring probation services in-house, 3-2 with Bryan and McDaniel opposed.
Wewahitchka Health Department
Marsha Lindeman, executive director of the Gulf County Health Department, and Roger Hall, president of Sacred Heart Health Systems were on hand on the direction of Commissioner Carmen McLemore to clear up information about the Wewahitchka facility.
McLemore noted that he had campaigned for the half-cent sales tax for Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf to defray indigent care. He also referred to his opposition of Lindeman as health department administrator of 18 months ago.
He said he was getting calls about the Health Department closing its Wewahitchka facility on June 30 and about mass layoffs and in a confrontational tone queried Lindeman and Hall.
Lindeman said she was facing a $500,000 shortfall in her budget for primary care services and had reached out to those commissioners who allowed her the time to explain the problems the Wewahitchka facility was facing.
The shortfall in primary care services from the state was compounded by the lack of full-time physician in Wewahitchka the past two years and the subsequent drop in fees.
She said the mission has always been to maintain services and by partnering with Sacred Heart on the Gulf, the clinic would provide expanded services in Wewahitchka.
“Health services do not change,” Lindeman said. “Sacred Heart will provide primary care services.”
The Health Department will close on June 28, though community health programs will continue at the site. The transition in primary care services would be cutting four jobs, she said.
Hall said the transition to the Sacred Heart team would take about two weeks – Sacred Heart would re-open the Wewahitchka clinic in mid-July.
Hall also highlighted that while the half-cent sales tax will bring in roughly $700,000 to Sacred Heart for indigent care, the hospital in Gulf County was on track to provide nearly $5 million in such care.
“That’s a pretty good return,” Hall said. “We are actually going to expand services in Wewahitchka from where they are now. We’ll be there. Marsha has worked well with us on the transition.”
Due to a Florida Association of Counties conference, the BOCC has moved their last monthly regular meeting from Tuesday, June 25 to 9 a.m. ET on Monday, June 24.