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  • Writer's pictureBill Raines

Editorial: Lawrence County Should Take Note from Owen County Financial Problems

LAWRENCE COUNTY - SEPTEMBER 3, 2022 - Lawrence County had a surplus of $8 Million in the county's general fund for the year 2019, however over the last four years the county has overspent it's budget by $2 Million a year.

In this year's budget cycle, the county has a proposed budget of $17.4 Million dollars. The budget has increased over $3.9 Million since 2019 with last year's budget the highest historical budget.

Contributing to the budget increase was a pay increase for the Republican Elected leaders except for the Lawrence County Sheriff who was under contract for $105,0000. The Lawrence County Sheriff salary for 2023 will increase to $113,000. The terms and conditions of this salary increase has not been disclosed at this time, as the budget for the county sheriff has not gone before the county council yet.

However, the Indiana Department of Local Finance has given the county warning that it is overspending and cannot be ignored. There must be significant cuts and action taken by the Lawrence County Council. Operating in the red is not a good steward of county taxpayers' money.

Lawrence County Auditor Jessica Staggs, and Lawrence County President Scott Smith told council members prior to the vote in October 2021 that the county had plenty of revenue to increase pay for the elected officials of 20 percent, and more than 8 percent raises for county employees. Some of the county officials was also given incremental raises for tenured employees. Some of the proposed pay increases was cut to an average of $10,000.

Last years, Salary Committee consisting of Jody Edwards, Billie Tumey, and Janie " Craig" Chenault recommended the pay increases as the county was falling behind in wages compared to other county's Lawrence County size.

Lawrence County Council woman Janie " Craig" Chenault felt that since the county elected leaders used their own personal money to get elected should be compensated for the political campaigns.

The proposed pay increase for county employees is proposed between 3% to 5 % for 2023.

In other government offices for the county there have been other challenges for the county council which included a threat of mandates from the county judges for its staff pay increases, Lawrence County Prosecutor Samuel Arp II has recently threatened a mandate for increase in pay for his staff, Lawrence County Public Defender's office has faced increased costs in providing contractual labor with the last two budget proposals that was over $1 Million, Lawrence County Sheriff's Department facing staffing issues in road deputies, jailers and dispatchers have cost overtime costs for the county.

The county has also overspent in the COVID-19 relief funds administered to various non-profits and school corporations in the county. Each county employee received stipends to compensate for no pay raises the year prior. The total amount of overspending In COVID funds has yet to be appropriated by the Lawrence County Council.

A jail study by former Sheriff Samuel Craig and current Sheriff Mike Branham calls for new or renovated jail facility. Recently, a jail inspector called for a indoor recreational area for inmates.

In addition, the county is looking to build a new $46 Million dollar jail facility at another location on Beech Street in Bedford. There have been no studies to look at costs of renovating a new facility.

Lawrence County should seek an independent accounting firm for analysis of how the county has overspent its revenues and look at ways to reduce expenditures.

Owen County hired the accounting firm Crowe to look over its financial records to determine where the overspending occurred.

Owen County in June 2021, Owen County was forced to cut county employees across all local government departments to address their financial woes. Owen County spent $9 Million from their $7.6 Million 2020 budget. This left that county $1.9 Million in the red.

The situation in that county made it worse by the Owen County Auditor failing to collect over $900,000 in taxes. Owen County mandated that each department lay off at least one employee to decrease that county expenses.

That mandate left 10 employees without a job. They exempted 911 services and EMS employees.

The final budget for 2023 will not be finalized until October, and at this time there has only been suggestions on how Lawrence County will deal with their own financial crisis. During a work session on Wednesday the proposed cuts to some departments were only a fraction of what was needed.

This cannot be ignored as inaction by the Lawrence County Council could force tax increases for county residents.

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