Studying the budget

Retiring jail debt, employee pay hike eyed by county officials

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Canadian County Commissioners and excise board members meet with county officers during a fiscal year 2021 budget conference on Aug. 25 inside the Canadian County Administration Office: Seated at table from left, excise board member Karl Mengers, Sheriff Chris West, excise board member Lynda Ramsey, and Court Clerk Marie Hirst; seated in back from left, County Clerk Sherry Murray, District 1 County Commissioner Marc Hader and District 2 Commissioner David Anderson. (Photo by Conrad Dudderar)

By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer

EL RENO – Plans to pay off debt on the Canadian County Jail and give raises to county employees highlighted talks this week about the county’s general fund budget.

Canadian County Commissioners on Aug. 25 conducted their second fiscal year 2021 general fund budget conference with Canadian County Excise Board members.

Other county officers and department heads attended the meeting inside the Canadian County Administration Office, 201 N Choctaw.

The proposed FY21 general fund budget shows $31,216,667 in estimated revenues and a $2,018,025 budget surplus to be balanced. The grand total of all departments is $29,198,642, a 7.7% increase over FY20.

Property tax revenues, which fund Canadian County general fund operations, continue to grow. This compares to a recent decline in sales tax collections for the juvenile center and gross production tax income used for county road improvements.

“The general fund of county government is much healthier than the cash funds,” District 2 County Commissioner David Anderson noted.

Commissioners asked County Clerk Sherry Murray to prepare budget “options” to include paying off debt on a previous county jail expansion project and providing possible raises for county employees.

The proposed FY21 general fund budget includes “carryover” funds from past years set aside to finance future construction projects – which could be a new county administration building and courthouse expansion.

The estimate of needs for the county’s general government account shows $3,886,359 for capital improvement projects and $796,090 for building repairs. The proposal also lists $3 million for capital outlay reserves.

Commissioners said they want to demonstrate they are living within their means while planning future capital improvements.

“We know that Canadian County is going to need more functional facilities than the ones we have now,” Anderson said. “We’re budgeting $1 million out of this year’s revenues to go with last year’s $2.8 million.”

A county can only budget 90% of funds received the previous fiscal year in property tax collections.

“One of the good things for Canadian County is we’re in a growing pattern, so 90% of what we’ve collected the prior year is a bigger number each year,” Anderson said. “A lot of counties are pretty flat. Well, our 90% number keeps going up and up and up. That’s why we’ve got $2 million to balance.
“We’re in the position today to determine what to do with a $2 million surplus.”

PAYING OFF JAIL DEBT

Canadian County’s elected officials talked at Tuesday’s budget hearing about paying off about $1.7 million left on a $4 million construction loan for the last jail expansion project.
“We’ve got four more years left on that 11-year note that we borrowed to build the jail,” Anderson said.

“We owe four payments of roughly $1.6 million (plus interest).

“I’d like to see us use the lion’s share of our $2 million excess to pay off that jail loan.”
There is a “significant amount of money to be saved” in interest costs by paying the loan off early, he added.

Talk of needing another jail expansion stopped this year after Canadian County’s inmate population dropped and few prisoners had to be housed in other counties.

Retiring the jail construction debt is “totally the right thing to do,” Sheriff Chris West said.
“I think paying off the jail is a great idea,” he told commissioners. “I just don’t want the employees to be left out.”

West told commissioners that Canadian County’s elected officials have a “tremendous amount” of respect and support from their constituents.

“I think that comes from competence of the job that we’re all doing,” he said. “I think the citizens would appreciate us paying off the jail and they appreciate the other projects you have going to better the county.

“But I don’t think for a minute they would hold resentment for us looking after the welfare of our employees who are providing those services.”

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PROPOSED PAY HIKE

Canadian County officials shared their views at this week’s budget conference about what type of raise county employees should receive – whether none, 2%, 3% or even more.
“I’d like to reward our employees,” Canadian County Commission Chairman Marc Hader said.

“One thing I do want to consider is the climate that we’re in. An awful lot of our taxpayers – people who are paying our salaries – may not have a job, their job may be in jeopardy or have reduced hours.”

Discussion centered around whether all employees should get a standard cost-of-living raise or earn higher pay based on quality performance.

Citing concerns about a rise in COVID-19 cases, County Excise Board Member Lynda Ramsey said Canadian County needs to keep quality employees – and keep them safe.
“A lot of them are working with the public that are going to be ill and sick – and they’re being exposed,” Ramsey told county officers. “I feel like, to accomplish that, you’re going to have to take care of your employees. Three percent just sounds so minimum to me. I wish we could give them a lot more.”

Sheriff West noted the starting annual salary for his jail detention officers is $34,175, and a 3% pay hike would be about $1,000 more and 2% would be around $700. He pointed to the high turnover in the jail staff because of low pay.

“County workers really don’t make that much money, to begin with, compared to municipal government and state government,” West said.

Court Clerk Marie Hirst said some of her employees start much less than that – about $13 per hour – which she noted is less than a McDonald’s worker earns. She did say Canadian County has improved “by leaps and bounds” the benefits provided to its employees.

The updated Canadian County general fund budget proposal includes retirement and health insurance benefits’ increases.

GREATER EXPECTATIONS

Chairman Hader said he “hates the idea” of an “across-the-board” pay raise for employees, preferring that high-achieving personnel with solid work ethic be rewarded with merit raises.

Assistant District Attorney Tommy Humphries advised county officers the state Legislature in November 2018 passed legislation allowing counties to establish a performance-based pay adjustment program to allow raises up to 5%-10% for employees meeting and exceeding established standards.

As Canadian County continues to grow, Sheriff West predicted the “expectation of service” that the county provides citizens also will increase. He noted Canadian County has the highest average household income among counties statewide.

If the balance of the jail construction loan is retired, the sheriff said a 3% pay hike would work.

“I think we do have outstanding employees and a lot of them need it,” he said.

Court Clerk Hirst pointed out how the economic downturn prompted by COVID-19 impacted some of her employees, whose spouses lost their jobs.

Providing competitive salaries and benefits helps Canadian County attract and retain employees, County Treasurer Carolyn Leck added.

Commissioner Anderson shared his reservation about giving “across-the-board” salary adjustments through the annual budget due to the current economic climate.

“We ‘live and die’ by the staff we’re able to hire and retain,” he said. “I hope that the employees of Canadian County who’ve been here awhile have seen all of the elected officials put a priority on making this a better place to work.

“I want the people that pay our salaries and pay the taxes in this county see us be disciplined with any excess we might have.”