Those who oversee Mahoning County’s finances are urging county department heads to budget conservatively amid economic uncertainty.
“There is no room in the budget for growth,” Carol McFall, chief deputy county auditor, said of the county’s 2013 general-fund budget as it now stands.
“We have to continue to be [financially] conservative and continue to look for better, more efficient ways of doing things,” said county Treasurer Daniel R. Yemma, who is a member of the county budget commission.
“We’re always emphasizing trying to do more with less, trying to take advantage of new technologies,” McFall said.
“All departments need to look at doing a little bit of reorganization and tweaking,” and should carefully evaluate whether employees who resign or retire need to be replaced, McFall said.
Yemma and McFall made their remarks based on the budget commission’s certification of a $2.5 million carry-over from 2012 to 2013 in the county’s general-fund budget, which brings that budget to $52,770,894.
Those numbers compare with a $4.4 million carry-over from 2011 to 2012 and a $54,379,948 budget for 2012.
The carry-over dropped because the county spent about $2 million more than it took in during 2012, McFall explained.
The general fund is the county’s main operating fund, which supports the county jail, courts, prosecutor’s office, 911 emergency dispatching center and other central county government functions.
The carry-over is going to the county commissioners’ administration fund, which is used to meet the county’s debt, pay legal fees, and match various grants.
“Most of the departments were able to pretty much get the same budget that they got last year, so everybody’s been asked to just hold the line” when it comes to spending, McFall said.
The $2.5 million carry-over is nothing to celebrate, McFall said, noting that it likely wouldn’t even cover two payrolls, and that the Standard & Poors financial rating agency would prefer a $7 million carry-over.
The county has maintained its AAA rating on sales-tax revenues and an A- rating on its bond obligations from S&P because of good management and cost controls and not because of any “bright numbers on the horizon,” McFall said.
The new sheriff, Jerry Greene, likely will need new revenues to open more of the county’s main jail and reopen the minimum security jail, McFall said.
Greene has proposed generating new revenues through returning federal prisoners to the county jail and charging booking fees to jail inmates and fees for criminal background checks, fingerprints and real-estate purchases at sheriff’s sales.
With a $17.4 million 2013 budget, the sheriff’s department is by far the largest consumer of the general fund.
Although overall sales-tax receipts in 2012 exceeded those of 2011, McFall expressed concern about a decline in sales-tax revenues in October and December 2012 when compared with the same months a year earlier.
The sales tax is the largest source of general-fund revenue, accounting for more than half of general-fund income. Other major general-fund revenue sources are the real-estate tax and state funding.
“Consumers are very cautious,” McFall said, adding that Congress may be “scaring the consumers out of spending” if it can’t get the federal government’s finances in order.
“Almost every consumer out there has taken a pay cut” through the recent return of Social Security payroll taxes to pre-stimulus levels, she observed.
“I don’t think the general public was pleased with the way that whole thing was handled,” Yemma said of the recent fiscal cliff crisis and its last-minute resolution.
“We’ll just have to take a wait-and-see attitude for the first quarter” of 2013, said county Prosecutor Paul J. Gains, another budget commission member, referring to looming deadlines for congressional action on federal spending and the debt ceiling.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see how the December report comes in on the sales tax,” Gains added, referring to Christmas season sales.
The county receives sales-tax revenues two to three months after merchants here ring them up, so Christmas sales will be reflected in February and March receipts by the county.