The Baldwin County Commission Sept. 15 adopted a $152,321,931 budget for the next fiscal year, representing a 22 percent increase from the previous year and a 38 percent increase since 2013. Interim County Administrator and Budget Director Ron Cink attributed much of the increase over last year’s budget to the county’s focus on road and infrastructure projects, along with a 25 percent increase in health insurance premiums from the previous year.
The county’s health insurance premiums created a $1.3 million expense in the FY2015-16 budget, and Cink said rising health care premiums and costs and sick employees accounted for the increase.
“It all depends on health care costs, and we all know health care costs have risen over the last few years,” Cink said. “Our claims exceeded our premiums, which caused the increase.”
Cink said the county expects 575 employees to participate in the Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance program offered to all full-time employees, while 144 employees, many who are part-time, are not participating.
He said requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) contributed to the cost increase but were not the sole cause. In the previous budget cycle, the county’s health care premiums were steady, but in the 2013-14 and 2012-13 cycles premiums decreased by 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
The last time the county’s health insurance premiums rose was during the 2010-11 budget cycle, when they rose 8.8 percent. The ACA was signed into law March 23, 2010; most of its major provisions were phased in by January 2014.
“The Affordable Care Act has something to do with it, but the bottom line is that health costs continue to increase significantly nationwide,” Cink said.
The county’s $152 million budget is significantly higher than last year’s $124.8 million, with Cink accounting for $16 million in infrastructure repair and improvement projects targeting drainage problems the county suffered following historic flooding in April 2014. There’s also $8 million set aside for resurfacing projects prioritized on county roads.
The county’s total General Fund is 2.4 percent higher than the previous year to $53.5 million total, which includes $22.9 million for the sheriff’s office, $3.7 million for the probate court and $1.6 million for the revenue commission. The budget includes $12.3 million in emergency reserves and $3.1 million in unreserved funds. There is also $25 million in the General Fund.
Highway and road projects will receive 25.4 percent of the budgeted funds this year with $38.9 million in projected expenditures, while public safety will receive 19 percent at $29.4 million and 18 percent or $27.8 million for general government operations.
Cink said while the Commission focused a great deal of attention on road projects in this budget, the county’s law enforcement remains fully staffed. He also said the Commission has remained focused on customer service at its satellite courthouses and probate office. The county uses about 110,000 gallons per month, or 1.2 million gallons per year, so Cink said it will benefit from lower gas prices.
“With a $152 million budget, there are a lot of moving parts,” Cink said. “We try to make sure we focus on the things government is responsible for.”
This year, the county shifted some of its contract employees to part-time status. Cink said the county’s contract with the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission expired. Previously, the county used a number of employees from the contract to drive garbage trucks and BRATS buses or to guide weekend tours of historic sites like Bicentennial Park. This year, 36 of those employees will be counted as part-time county employees who work fewer than 30 hours per week.
Commissioners held a series of weekly meetings starting July 17 to begin considering the fiscal year’s budget. Cink said the first meetings were held to discuss the county’s projected revenues for the year. The county projects its largest sources of revenue will be $31 million in ad valorem taxes and $28 million in revenues from fees and charges. The county also projects $7.7 million from local gas taxes and $12 million in sales tax among its revenues.
Elliott said the meetings were intended to give Commissioners a thorough overview of the county’s expenses and revenues and to allow for greater transparency in the budgeting process.
“We spent an awfully big amount of time going through this budget in the most transparent way possible,” Commissioner Chris Elliott, the budget hearings chairman, said. “I want the public to know that if anyone has questions they can call me. This is a significant amount of money, it is your tax money, and we want to make sure the public feels comfortable asking questions about it.”
After approving its budget, the Commission then had to approve 12 additional expenditures related to the budget to groups that “serve a public purpose.” Those appropriations included $51,380 for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, $15,000 for the Baldwin County Heritage Museum Association, $64,438 for the Baldwin County Soil and Water Conservation District, $350,000 for the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, $4,800 to the Baldwin County Historic Development Commission, $83,103 for the Baldwin County Library Cooperative and $500 each to the county’s four chambers of commerce.
The Commission approved 11 appropriations unanimously, but a $10,000 appropriation to the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program passed with a 3-1 vote. Commissioner Frank Burt voted “nay” because of a disagreement with the MBNEP’s support of the so-called “rain tax.” Burt noted he had voted to approve funds for the MBNEP in previous budgets.
“I’m not quite ready to give $10,000 in tax money to an organization that, while they have done good things, is a proponent of tax schemes such as this,” Burt said.