PERRY — State budget cuts forced the Houston County District Attorney’s Office to close its doors once in February and twice in March.
The office is also expected to close this Friday and April 17, May 8, May 29 and June 12, Houston County District Attorney Kelly Burke said.
The furloughs are necessary because of a mandate from Gov. Sonny Perdue this year for most state offices to trim 6 percent from existing budgets, the prosecutor said.
About 98 percent of the state funds are used to pay salaries and 2 percent for travel and other miscellaneous expenses, Burke said. The district attorney’s office also receives county funding for some other personnel positions and for operational expenses.
Because state funds are allocated to salaries, Burke said there was no other way to make up the shortfall without furloughs unless the Houston County Board of Commissioners was willing to intervene.
Burke said he asked commissioners to allow him to defer training for staff members until the next fiscal budget, which begins July 1, 2009, and use those county funds, about $27,300, to offset the shortfall in state funds.
“It was just like talking to a brick wall,” Burke said. He said he received a lot of platitudes but no action.
But Commissioner Larry Thomson said the District Attorney’s Office was not the only state office considering furloughs and he didn’t see how commissioners could offset the DA’s state shortfall without offsetting those in other state offices.“Quite frankly, the money’s not there,” he said.
NO EXTRA FUNDS
Any fall-back money the county may have had has been gobbled up, Thomson said, by the cost of transferring Houston County inmates to other jails in the state because its 504-bed facility is overcrowded. But Burke argued that if he didn’t have to furlough his state employees, there might be a few less inmates in the jail. While the prosecutor said he could not quantify the impact his office closings have on the jail inmate population, he said that it stands to reason that when his employees aren’t at their desks working, cases aren’t moving through the court system.
Burke also wanted the county to fund hiring a part-time person to help monitor the jail population for potential cases in which a determination for bond could be made for someone jailed on a Friday before a Thursday court date the following week.
Also, had commissioners not put roads ahead of the jail expansion, the county might not be in the predicament it’s now in, Burke said.
“I don’t want to get into a contest with the DA,” Thomson said. “We’re doing the best we can do.”
Thomson said when the special purpose local option sales tax was approved that included the jail expansion, $4 million seemed ample to add an 80-bed pod. But inmate numbers swelled ahead of original projections.
Commissioners recently approved $7.5 million for two 80-bed pods that will add 160 new beds to the jail. The expansion may be completed in December or January.
Houston County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Rape said the jail population grew much faster than anticipated, with the cost to the county expected to reach $900,000 by the end of the fiscal year to house inmates elsewhere because of overcrowding, he said.
Steve Engle, Houston County’s director of administration, said that so far no county offices have had to furlough, although the Houston County Board of Education has talked about the possibility of furloughs for some non-teaching positions.
DA’S OFFICE NOT ALONE IN FURLOUGHS
Dr. Dave Harvey, director of the North Central Health District, said the health department in Crawford County has experienced a once-a-month furlough in which the department is closed for a day of the 13 district counties that include Houston and Bibb.
Also, two district staff members at the Macon office are furloughed twice a month, which amounts to about a 9 percent pay cut, Harvey said. A handful of other district employees are furloughed once a month, he said. While admittedly tough on morale, most of those in the health-care profession are dedicated employees, Harvey said. But with continued furloughs possible in the upcoming fiscal year, the state health department may find its employees leaving for better paying jobs and have recruitment efforts impaired, he said.
ANOTHER LEAN YEAR AHEAD
Houston County department heads are already on notice of what to expect in the next fiscal budget.
Budget guidelines for fiscal 2010 include keeping the current level of expenditures, no new positions, possibly no cost-of-living adjustments, and no new capital expenditures more than $5,000, Engle said. Merit increases are intact for some county employees
Exceptions to those expenditure caps include the jail expansion, road projects and public safety expenditures for the sheriff’s office, Houston County Emergency Management Agency and 911, Engle said.
Thomson noted, “We’re just going to have to tighten our belts.”
Burke said, “A lot of that stuff I understand ... My complaint is they’re not taking care of my people.”
But Commission Chairman Ned Sanders noted that Burke has since spent the county money for training he originally proposed using, Sanders said. That’s true, Burke said, but why not spend the money since his request was denied?
Also, Sanders said that if Burke could help come up with a way to reduce the jail inmate population by allowing some house arrests, for example, instead of incarceration, then perhaps commissioners would consider using county funds to offset state budget shortfalls for his office.
“It’s a two-way street,” Sanders said. “We don’t have an endless pot of money.”
In all, Burke said his state-paid staff will have taken 13 furlough days by the end of the fiscal year. In the beginning, staff members were able to schedule days off here and there.
It wasn’t until recently that Burke began closing the office, which requires his county-paid employees to work four, 10-hour days those weeks.
Having everyone take the same day off was easier to manage, he said.
“At least there’s a message out there that this budget situation is actually affecting the DA’s office,” Burke said.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 923-3109, extension 243.