EDITORIAL: County staring into a budgetary abyss

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By The Staff

Anderson County had budget reserves of around $1.2 million (depending on whom you ask) when Democrats booted former judge-executive Anthony Stratton from office in the May 2006 primary.

Three budget years later, the county has budgeted to spend what remains of that amount and is staring into the abyss of a $600,000 budget shortfall next year (again, depending on whom you ask).

That’s roughly 10 percent of the entire budget, folks, and short of layoffs, ending a variety of services or, God forbid, a renewed discussion of a payroll tax, there is no quick fix in sight.

Judge-Executive Steve Cornish is concerned about the budget problem and rightfully so. He began sounding the budget alarm from almost the moment he took office and did so again last Tuesday when he told magistrates of the shortfall.

Not that all of them are buying what Cornish is selling.

While Cornish has been the Pied Piper of budget woes, Magistrate John Wayne Conway has been just the opposite, proclaiming time and again that, while conditions certainly aren’t what they once were, the county is in relatively good financial shape.

While needling Cornish about his latest budget, Conway said he figured the county would end the year with about $1 million in reserves.

Apparently caught somewhat off guard by Cornish’s pronouncement last Tuesday, Conway says he is looking at the numbers and trying to determine, from his perspective at least, what’s going on.

And lest you think Conway is singing a discordant tune in an otherwise harmonious choir, other magistrates are apparently concerned, too. Just within the past month, County Treasurer Dudley Shyrock told the court that the capital outlay fund had in the neighborhood of $950,000. A couple of payrolls and fiscal year ending bills later and all of a sudden that amount has dwindled to about $550,000 as of last Tuesday night.

It’s hard to blame those magistrates who remain dubious about just how serious this problem really is.

After all, the majority had no problem doubling Cornish’s proposed 1 percent pay increase for county employees (bringing the total to 6 percent over two years); spending $10,000 in one night on flags, stained glass and a sign for the county park; continuing to pay the full cost of health insurance premiums for county employees; and paying dozens of hours of overtime to solid waste employees who aren’t supposed to get any.

Doesn’t exactly sound like a fiscal court overly concerned about the county’s financial standing, does it?

So who’s going to take the fall for all of this?

The easy mark is Cornish, who better be right or next May’s primary is going to be even hotter than it already figures to be.

If Cornish is right, the magistrates who so vocally oppose him will take a beating for allowing such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars to evaporate in such a short amount of time.

But as is always the case when things go wrong, the losers will be taxpayers who continue to fork over their hard earned cash only to have it treated like a spud in a political game of hot potato.

One side of this issue is right and the other is wrong and only time will tell which is which.

If Cornish is firm in his convictions, there is no reason to wait until next year to begin making draconian budget cuts. Start them now and mitigate as much of next year’s shortfall as possible.

If those who doubt him are firm in their convictions, it’s time to stop insinuating and start producing where Cornish has gone wrong, fix it and put in place a system that prevents this sort of thing from ever happening again.