The Baldwin County Commission’s proposed 2021 budget is coming in $40 million lighter than last year, but not because revenues have decreased. Budget Director Ron Cink told the commission Monday the difference is almost entirely accounted for by the absence of 2020’s bond issue for the expansion of the Baldwin County Corrections Center.
Otherwise, tax revenues only briefly declined during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, but year-over-year, have since rebounded. The 2021 budget envisions $185.6 million in revenues, with nearly flat funding for all departments.
“Sales tax, lease tax and gasoline tax were all affected by COVID,” Cink acknowledged after Monday’s work session. “But now we’re 1.6 percent ahead year-to-date on sales tax,” while lease and gas taxes have also recovered. Unlike many of its municipalities, the county has no lodging tax. Cink said those that do felt more financial pressure during the pandemic.
“Gas tax went down significantly because people weren’t traveling,” he said. “It was kind of interesting, but when the governor opened the beaches, the people who had been homebound for so long, they wanted to put their rear end in the sand and their toes in the water.”
Although he admitted it was only empirical evidence, Cink suggested school closings offered an added financial benefit, because with a longer summer, “it opened up economic activity for a longer amount of time, simply because kids were out of school.”
“I generally budget conservatively because I would rather overstate my costs and understate my revenues,” he said. “I wasn’t panicking over the short term, but if [the pandemic] got into our summer, it would have hurt us.”
Comparatively, the commission passed a $181.7 million budget in fiscal year 2019 and a $145.8 million budget in fiscal year 2018. Cink said the county spent more than $1 million on its COVID-19 response efforts, but it expects to submit those costs for reimbursement through the state’s share of CARES Act funding.
Offshore oil and gas revenues provided to the county through the GOMESA program were diverted to the Intracoastal Waterway boat launch project this year, but in next year’s budget, Cink said, it will continue to be used to pave dirt roads throughout the county.
Commissioner Joe Davis, who chairs the finance committee, said the county has been conservative about where it spends money and in the coming fiscal year, it will place a heavier emphasis on collections.
“We have great staff but we’re looking at everything,” he said. “Mainly who owes us and who we owe. We can’t fill a pothole with an IOU, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure people remit [taxes and fees] in a timely fashion. This commission came in with the idea that things were in really good shape, but are there ways for us to make it better? And that’s what we’re trying to do from a financial point of view, from an equipment point of view, from a programmatic point of view … and I think this budget is a starting point. We have a list of road projects, a list of construction projects — we’ve got some great stuff going on.”
The road and bridge fund is budgeted for $13.4 million in revenues next year, while the 7-cent gasoline fund is expected to have a balance of $52.8 million. The general fund, primarily comprised of sales tax revenue, has a balance of $133.5 million. The commission is expected to review and approve the budget at its regular meeting Sept. 15.
In other business on Tuesday, the commission approved a draft map of proposed Planning District 36 outside of Foley, which will allow residents there to begin the petition process to gauge interest on whether they want to be included in the county’s zoning ordinances. Earlier this summer, the commission approved two other proposed planning districts in Point Clear and north of Magnolia Springs.
In other business
Separately, the commission also approved a $662,597 expenditure for 129 body cameras and related technology for the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO). The agenda noted since 2013, Georgia-based Utility Associates Inc. has been BCSO’s sole-source provider for in-car audio and video capabilities.
The in-car recording system provided by Utility Associates is promoted as capable of powering “up to four wide-angle cameras to capture the most critical moments” while its BodyWorn line of body cameras can make “intelligent, configurable decisions on when to start and stop recording such as when the light bar is turned on and when the vehicle door is opened.”
Additional options prompt the camera to record when it detects a foot pursuit, when an officer’s weapon is unholstered, or if an officer or deputy has fallen from an upright position. It can also be turned on remotely.
Sheriff Hoss Mack told the commission Monday cloud-based computing related to the retention of camera footage and other records is one of BCSO’s largest expenses and videos are often stored for several years in criminal cases. Notably, Mack and BCSO have rarely released any body-cam footage to the public, and in July, attorneys for this newspaper and BCSO met at the Alabama Supreme Court to argue whether body-cam footage from the officer-involved shooting death of Jonathan Victor in 2017 is considered public records.
In that case, BCSO was called to the scene of a single-vehicle accident on Interstate 10 after they were told the victim was acting combatively toward first responders. After ordering Victor to drop an item in his hands and comply, BCSO Sgt. Matt Hunady shot Victor with his service rifle, killing him. The item was later determined to be a fanny pack and no weapon was found.
Hunady was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by a Baldwin County grand jury and Mack held a press conference where he screened select footage of the incident. Lagniappe later sought full disclosure of all camera footage and additional information, but BCSO cited Alabama Code Section 12-21-3.1 to argue “law enforcement investigative materials aren’t public records.”
The Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling in the matter.
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