As the Baldwin County Commission’s fiscal year passes its halfway point this month, the commission’s current and former budget chairmen are already looking for ways the county can save money in the next fiscal year.
Commissioner Frank Burt, this year’s budget chairman, said he already reached out to the county’s department heads and elected officials seeking budget requests.
“I’ve been here since 1989 and we’ve always passed our budget on time,” Burt said. “Not only are we required by law to do so, but it also gives our department heads and officials an idea of what they will be able to do during the year. I know there are some municipalities who don’t always finalize their budgets on time around here, but we always do.”
The county is operating on a $152 million budget passed in September 2015. According to Burt, the county is on track to meet budget projections, while being able to approve approximately $20 million in infrastructure projects to repair damages suffered around the county during historic flooding events in April 2014.
Those projects have been paid for using a mix of federal, state and local dollars. Burt noted the floods showed the county how outdated some of its infrastructure was at the time. He said the repairs are about halfway finished.
“I wouldn’t quite call it a blessing in disguise, but it certainly showed us just how deteriorated some of our streets and cross drain pipes were. Some of the cross drain pipes that were damaged were put in so long ago they didn’t even have rebar in them. That’s why they collapsed with heavy rains.”
In the next year, Burt said he hopes the county can appropriate funds to further update some parts of its ailing infrastructure.
“We have some roads that need to be repaired and some bridges that are deteriorating and are in bad shape,” he said. “I think we have a good plan with our county engineers to tackle some of those problems over the next few years.”
Commissioner Chris Elliott, the previous budget chairman, is eyeing at least $500,000 in potential savings for the county, some of which could come from the privatization of inmate medical services at the Baldwin County Corrections Center and at the Residential Wilderness Camp in Lottie.
The County Commission released an RFP for the privatization of inmate medical services at the Corrections Center, a 651-bed facility in Bay Minette. The county budgeted $8.35 million for the jail this year, with $125,000 for medical and dental services for inmates, $80,000 in doctor services and $35,000 in medical supplies included among the medical expenses in the jail’s budget.
“Right now we do our inmate medical services in-house, but if we privatize it could save the county a lot of money,” Elliott said. “With some of the state cuts to mental health services, we’ve seen an influx of the mentally ill in our county jails, which has significantly increased our financial burden.”
The jail currently has nine full-time budgeted positions in its medical unit and has contracts for a physician, a dentist, a dental assistant and a mental health specialist.
Elliott said a similar RFP seeking a private company to manage the Residential Wilderness Program, also known as Camp Horizon, would save the county money next year. In its current budget, the county included $4.5 million for the camp, which became a source of controversy when a juvenile camper allegedly raped a staff member last December.
In March, the commission abolished 15 paid positions at the camp, which will eliminate more than $330,356 in salaries from the camp’s payroll. Before the cuts were approved, the camp employed 61 people with more than $2.1 million in salaries.
“Our job is to make sure we aren’t wasting money,” Elliott said. “We are constantly looking at ways to save money and to be more efficient in a transparent way.”
Burt has openly disagreed with Elliott on the privatization of the camp, saying the public and media unnecessarily jumped the gun when news of the alleged assault broke.
“I hope that works out, but I’m not in favor of privatizing it,” Burt argued. “I’ve been pleased with the direction the camp has taken over the years. So many kids who came to the camp didn’t know their life could have a purpose. They discovered abilities they didn’t know they had, and a lot of them have gone on to finish high school and college because of the help the camp provided.”
Elliott and Burt do agree on what they say is the county’s commitment to transparency and fiscal responsibility.
The county’s online check register lists every payment it sends out, from nearly $7 million in payments to the Baldwin County Board of Education in April, down to a 40-cent payment for a “Senior Treasures” transaction at the Council on Aging on April 19.
“Our entire budget is online and everything we spend is itemized and as detailed as possible,” Elliott said. “Our online checkbook is as open and transparent as we can be. Vendors and employees aren’t always happy about that, because the public can go online and see what every employee makes and what exactly is in the contracts we sign, but the public has the right to know.”
Burt said the county’s commitment to a conservative fiscal philosophy and openness has helped it weather potential financial catastrophes over the years, including the nationwide recession in 2007.
“We were able to anticipate it because we run a tight ship,” Burt said. “It was quite painful in some ways, and we had to make some cuts and delay some things we wanted to do, but we survived.”