Beeker: You’ve got plenty of money

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 15, 2004

Concerned about funding for his department in the fiscal 2004 budget, Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac recently criticized the management of county government.

In response county commission chairman Chip Beeker Jr. said the sheriff’s budget has doubled since January 1999 when Isaac took office. The sheriff’s budget increased some 20 percent annually from 1998-2001.

“How can he say he’s not fully funded,” Beeker said. A state omnibus pay bill also increased the salaries for sheriffs and other elected officials, said county administrator Mattie Atkins. “It’s an unfunded mandate,” Beeker said.

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There have been two additional deputies hired in two different fiscal years, Atkins said.

The number of vehicles for the sheriff’s office has also tripled. The current number is 12.

The commission approved these increases. “We were all on the same accord,” Beeker said. “We want to work with this sheriff to the absolute top level line we can fund, and we have done so.

“He is very, very well funded. Now we can’t continue. We had hoped after an 80 percent increase (in the department budget), things would level off. We still continue to get requests for more funding….We cannot continue to go up.”

The sheriff’s department will receive revenue from bingo gaming in Greene County. Supporters of the bill to allow bingo gaming and citizens who overwhelmingly supported bingo hope gaming revenue with offer a better future for the county.

With current legislation being considered in the State Legislature allowing bingo gaming elsewhere in the state and constant talk of revisiting the state lottery, no one is sure how long Greene County can expect sizable profits from bingo.

Unfortunately the county government will realize very little of the bingo revenues. The county will only receive a portion of revenue from that allotted to the county racing commission. The amount of that revenue will not be known until it is distributed likely next year.

The Greene County government is currently in bankruptcy stemming from the loss of revenue from pari-mutuel dog racing in the mid-90’s.

“When we were getting money from the track, when they were running dogs, it was big money,” Beeker said. County government made a lot of big plans thanks to the gaming revenue.

Later the competition from the track, which opened in Birmingham, and later the casinos in Mississippi reduced the Greenetrack revenue to a trickle. The slide began in 1995, Atkins said.

“We had all these people doing all these things and services that we could no longer afford,” the chairman said. “We couldn’t turn them loose as fast as the money slowed up.”

Some 10 employees were affected, and “we cut people from working 40 to 35 hours (a week),” Beeker said. “We haven’t recovered from that yet. It has been something I’ve wanted to do ever since I have been chairman – put our people back to working 40 hours a week.”

The county thought the revenue was going to be there; they were moving along with projects and the money from Greenetrack was essentially cut off.

There were parks and ballparks that the county had begun to construct, all sorts of projects that were left without revenue.

Did the county have much warning the revenue would be gone? “It was all speculation,” Beeker said. “We hoped there would be enough people to continue at Greenetrack that it wouldn’t severely harm us.”

County officials thought people would travel to both dog tracks much in the way golfers use the Robert Trent Golf Trail in Alabama. “It didn’t work,” he said.

Once the casinos opened in Mississippi, Beeker said they knew they were in trouble.

Greene County had to adjust from a rich county to a poor county in 1996.

The county government was forced into bankruptcy the same year.

Atkins said the gasoline fund was not effected by bankruptcy, and people have been hired to replace others. There have also been normal increases in benefits and insurance, she said.

“One of the places that frequently comes up for criticism is out Chief of Staff,” Beeker said. “We had a Chief of Staff 10 to 15 years ago. Then when we went into bankruptcy, for a while we didn’t.

“I’m part time,” the chairman said. “If the commission is going to have someone full time to represent them, we have to hire that person. We have a person (James Carter) that functions part time as a chief of staff and also works at the highway department….We’re trying to stretch every thing we’ve got as far as it can be.”

With the county government in bankruptcy, are the officials an easy target for criticism? “That’s absolutely part of it,” Beeker said. “When we went into bankruptcy, (the attorney) told us, ‘if you can make it fly the first year (1997), I’m going to structure it, you tighten your belt…it’s straight uphill (from there).'”

The bankruptcy as an issue was over by 1998, Beeker said. “Since then the only issue has been the legal issue….We have to give structured raises and that one of the reasons we decided to get this governmental survey, which has helped us….We don’t just willy-nilly give anybody (raises).”

When a county government is in bankruptcy, auditors or regulators have their antennas very high, he said. The Greene County government has to be “squeaky clean.”

The county is trying to build a new landfill to help raise revenue. “We’ve got to find revenue,” Beeker said. “Let’s all work together to get it, and the landfill is one thing….We’re going to be certain that everything is done exactly the way it should be so we don’t run in trouble with anyone.”