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TRUMBULL COUNTY Panel gives officials fiscal-watch notice



Published: Mon, February 10, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Commissioners say this is further proof a sales tax increase is needed.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

WARREN -- Trumbull County's projected $8 million budget shortfall may be enough to catapult the county into state fiscal watch, the county budget commission says.

In a letter to commissioners, the county budget commission -- made up of the county auditor, treasurer and prosecutor -- officially told commissioners to expect to have $31.1 million to spend on general fund departments this year.

That's about $8 million less than they spent from the general fund last year on everything from jail expenses to personnel costs at the sheriff's, auditor's and treasurer's department.

"It confirms what the commissioners have been saying," said Michael O'Brien, a county commissioner. "Any way you look at it, a tax is needed."

Hearing planned

Commissioners will have the first hearing on raising the 0.5-percent county sales tax next week. O'Brien said a 0.5-percent increase to 1 percent would raise enough money for the county to get by with some cost cutting.

The state auditor's office uses several benchmarks to determine if a government belongs in fiscal watch. One is if a county is on track to spend more money in a year than it has historically collected in 13 months.

If spending were to remain the same, Trumbull County would be headed in that direction.

"The county auditor, after consultation with the state auditor's office, advises that the county's financial condition as currently known may constitute grounds for fiscal watch," the letter from the county budget commission says.

A state auditor's employee discussed the criteria for putting a government in fiscal watch with county Auditor David Hines on Monday, a spokeswoman for the state auditor's office said.

State law says review for fiscal watch could be initiated by a written request from county commissioners or by the state auditor.

Before fiscal emergency

Fiscal watch is considered a warning stage before fiscal emergency, when an outside oversight committee is appointed to control a government's finances.

The state auditor's office provides special technical and support services to local governments it has declared to be in fiscal watch, then bills them for the help.

The budget commission also urged county commissioners to set the 2003 budget as soon as possible so department heads have time to deal with cutbacks.

Commissioners must consider the individual needs of departments and not just declare an across-the-board reduction, the budget commission said.

"Anyway you look at it, the tax is needed," county Commissioner James G. Tsagaris said.

siff@vindy.com




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