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“It’s a working document” : Board of Commissioners tries to quell discontent with 2023 budgets
BOC Budgets 2023
BOC Chairman Billy Thurmond, right, listens as District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines speaks about the challenge of prioritizing employees while being mindful of labor costs within Dawson County’s budgets. - photo by Julia Hansen

Before the Board of Commissioners voted to pass Dawson County’s proposed 2023 budgets, chairman Billy Thurmond acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room. 

This story continues below.

“A lot of you asked for personnel I did not recommend,” Thurmond said at the board’s Nov. 3 voting session. “After the first quarter [of 2023], we’ll know where we are.”

Thurmond added that the county currently has 27-28 vacancies that it cannot fill and mentioned the prudence in seeing the financial outlook for next year “so we don't add somebody that we maybe have to not keep.”

“I know there were needs in some of the departments, and I’d like to fill those,  but I also knew to look at it based on finances and where we are,” Thurmond said. “That’s the best way to do it. This and the next board [as well] have proven that they’re more than willing to make changes throughout the year.”

The BOC unanimously approved the FY2023 budgets 3-0, with Thurmond abstaining and District 3 Commissioner Tim Satterfield not voting, as he was unable to attend. 

Previously, officials from the library, district attorney’s office, superior court and other departments made budget requests including additional personnel. The judicial offices in particular cited increased and at times, overwhelming, caseloads given the uptick in traffic within the Dawson part of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit.


Budget numbers

As of the BOC’s vote, Dawson County’s overall 2023 budgets will be $61,392,257, compared to the FY2022 amended ones of $68, 936, 622. That’s a 10.94% decrease, according to the chairman’s Oct. 6 budget presentation. 

The general fund, the county’s biggest sole budget, will increase 14.79% to $37,292,621 and include the new millage rate of 7.225 mils. Dawson County’s millage rate is one of two at work within the county, as the school system has its own rate and taxes collected. 

Within the general fund, public safety will make up $7.159 million, an 18.25% increase. Likewise, the sheriff’s office expenses will entail $10.27 million, up 12.89% from last year’s original budget. 

General government expenses will comprise $7.669 million, a 15.39% increase over 2022, while judicial expenses would total $4.4 million, a 14.64% increase. 

SPLOST VII has reached its level II collections benchmark, with $11.685 million expected to be received in 2023. Under the proposed 2023 capital budget, four million dollars would be allocated for the forthcoming emergency operations and E-911 center, which is expected to be completed in 2024. As well,  $1.5 million in capital project funds will be set aside for courthouse security upgrades. 

Employees

During his Oct. 6 presentation, Thurmond said six part-time firefighter EMT and paramedic positions–three each–would be changed to full-time roles, a “cost-neutral” endeavor, with the 2023 budgets.

For 2023 $28,931,238 has been budgeted for overall personnel costs, including salary and benefits. That’s a 9.8% increase from 2022.

Last year, the board approved $3-per-hour raises for DCSO and $2 for other first responders and public works employees. 

The majority of the budget increase for staff will go toward the 5% COLA increases that the board approved in September and a $1 million contingency for starting the move to a merit-based system pay, Thurmond said. 

In 2021, Dawson County received $5.071 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Some of these funds have been used to cover COVID-19 paid time off for employees, 

For 2023, $1.6 million for first responder personnel costs will be transferred from the general fund to a special ARPA account. A $100,000 contingency will be allocated for COVID-19 PTO in 2023, leaving $659,657 left in ARPA funds. 

After 2024, the county budget would have to pick up the money for any pay raises, Thurmond said on Oct. 6.  

Before voting on the budget, District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines also talked about watching the county budgets throughout Q1 2023 and seconded moving forward “with what’s been presented so far.”

“I think as we move through the end of this year and into Q1, and we have a better understanding of what our economy’s going to look like as a whole going into 2023,” said Gaines, “we take on those requests as they come back before us in the following year.”

Outgoing District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett cautioned anyone disappointed with the proposed budgets from saying they’re not going to get a requested employee position or other resource.

“This is not written in stone. It's a working document,” Fausett said of the overall budget. “I won’t be here, but don't be afraid to come back before the board and reiterate a request.”

District 4 Commissioner and BOC vice-chairman Emory Dooley agreed with his colleagues, citing the need for fiscal responsibility going into 2023. 

“I would hate to get through the first quarter and say, ‘Oh, what've we done?’” Dooley said. “

A lot of people think like Sharon said that the budget is set in stone, and for me it's not. If there's something we need to look at and the money’s still coming in like it has been, then I'm fine with looking at it again.”

Chief Financial Officer Vickie Neikirk said they’ll likely know closer to the end of Q1 2023 what money will be added back to the fund balance. The fund balance can be a key monetary source for fulfilling any budget requests that aren’t a part of the initial proposals. 

Gaines described managing “an ever-increasing labor cost” as the commissioners’ and the county’s biggest budgetary challenge. 

“Our employees are our number one asset,” Gaines said. “It’s very expensive, but this budget that the chairman put forward does represent an investment in our employees.”


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