Benton County officials want leaner budget
BENTONVILLE — Benton County officials hope the 2018 budget can cover day-to-day operations and still provide money for a proposed new courts building.
County Judge Barry Moehring said 2018 will be the first year he will develop the annual budget from scratch. Moehring was still a justice of the peace until taking office in January but said he was not involved in creating the 2017 budget for the county judge’s office. Moehring wants to start the budgeting process with the goal of holding down costs as much as possible.
“I would say I want us to have a really accurate revenue picture and to see how little we can spend to accomplish our goals, not how much,” Moehring said. “The objective is we want to return money to the reserve fund to help finance the courts facility.”
Brenda Guenther, comptroller, set a schedule for elected officials and department heads to submit their draft budgets by Friday. The Quorum Court agreed earlier to ask for a budget with no increase in operating costs and with personnel and capital equipment requests to be kept separate. A preliminary budget is set for completion by Sept. 22. The Personnel Committee is set to meet at 6 p.m. Sept. 26 to review personnel requests.
Guenther said revenue estimates for 2018 are incomplete, but she expects revenue will be higher next year.
“We’re trending upward at about 5 percent over last year,” she said.
The county’s general fund property tax revenue grew by 3.39 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to information from Guenther. From 2015 to 2016 the county’s general fund revenue from property taxes grew by 1.95 percent. In 2016 the general fund property tax brought in about $25.6 million. The county’s road fund property tax brought in another $3.3 million in 2016. The county’s sales tax revenue grew by 8.72 percent from 2014 to 2015 and by 2.43 percent from 2015 to 2016. The sales tax brought in about $8.3 million in 2016.
Tom Allen is justice of the peace and chairman of the Finance Committee, which also acts as the Budget Committee. Allen would like to see the county pay for the new courts building out of existing revenue, but not at the cost of cutting services or losing good employees.
“We’re going to get more in property taxes because of the reappraisal last year,” Allen said. “We already know we’re getting more money in sales tax. I think we should try to stay flat on spending this year and next and see if we can dedicate some revenue toward the new courts building. I’m of the opinion we’re going to try not to sacrifice on personnel. There will be capital requests also, but we’ve got to have a balance.”
Pat Adams, justice of the peace, doubts the county can pay for a $20 million to $30 million courts building without some kind of increase in taxes or fees. Adams favors a 1 percent sales tax increase, with a one-year sunset provision, since a portion of the sales tax will be borne by tourists.
“There’s not enough money in Benton County’s reserves to pay for this building,” Adams said. “If we try to take it out of our normal budget, we’ll have to cut services somewhere and I’m not in favor of that.”
Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace, wants to see if the budget can be tightened enough to pay for the courts building without cutting personnel or services. She said she doesn’t want to put unrealistic expectations on county officials and department heads.
“I want to see it tightened up a little bit, but I don’t want to see us come back at mid-year and say we were totally wrong and we can’t do it,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22 no matter which way you do it.”