County looks at 'efficiency gains,' not budget cuts

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   There's more than one way to look at this year's proposed budget for Carter County. Don't think of the cuts as budget decreases. "It's really efficiency gains," according to County Finance Director Jason Cody.
   And to hear him explain it, it actually makes sense.
   In the proposed fiscal year 2003-2004 budget there are a few areas which will see increases. However, 27 other areas will face decreases. The underlying theme of this year's budgetary process is "needs vs. wants," Cody likes to say. In other words, if you don't need it, you might as well not want it because more than likely, you're not going to get it.
   "This is going to be a fairly challenging budget process," he said, but among the various departments, people are chipping in and trying to help out.
   One of the sacrifices in the new budget year is travel, which is coming to a screeching halt. In 2002-2003, the Carter County Commission spent $8,000 on travel. In the proposed 2003-2004 budget, that amount has been slashed to $3,000. To save on future travel expenses, Cody said the county is proposing to lease a van. Budget figures estimate the lease at $4,300.
   The county executive's travel budget has been reduced from $5,000 last year to $2,000 in the new fiscal year. The Election Commission, which had two line items in the 2002-03 budget amounting to $11,000 for travel, has been cut back $5,000, while the property assessor's travel budget was slashed from $16,000 to $3,000, mainly due to the purchase of county vehicles.
   "Certain items, like travel, is more discretionary. That's the easiest area that you can make cuts. We've tried to target right around $1,000 to $1,500 for travel for the departments," Cody said. "A typical trip -- hotel stay and mileage -- probably runs about $300; so that gives you two or three trips." Many officeholders are required to attend certain meetings, he said, typically about two for each department.
   Another area where "efficiency gains" come into play is through utilization of cooperative agreements in purchasing. Piggybacking off of other governmental agency contracts hasn't been done in the past, Cody said, probably because county officials didn't know that they could. "You're still buying the same things you need, but you're doing it in a little bit better way." The county recently joined the school system to purchase a truckload of paper, saving about $3 a case, he said.
   From a fleet management standpoint, by using what is already available, the county could save thousands of dollars on fuel costs, according to Cody.
   "We have several vehicles, like at the sheriff's department, that are on the road 24/7. When you look at that, the difference in gas prices, even a few cents, is a big bottom line." The sheriff's department now uses the Fuelman system and pays a discounted price at the pumps. However, there is another option which promises even more savings.
   "We have existing fuel pumps within the county at the Highway Department," Cody said. "If you've got them; my gosh, use them. Because the difference in the price is tremendous. You buy it at wholesale price and avoid all of the taxes as a local governmental agency."
   Cody said he had not seen a fuel bill from Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins this fiscal year that was higher than 88 cents a gallon. "We consistently average right around $1.09 for Fuelman. The last few months, because of the war, we went as high as $1.20."
   The sheriff's department typically uses about 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of fuel a month. Cody said the county could save around $15,000 by using the Highway Department tanks. "We'll probably save more, to be truthful," he said, but conservatively estimated saving at least 12 cents a gallon.
   Another advantage to using the tanks available is that it temporarily insulates the county against price increases, such as what occurred during the escalation of war with Iraq. "When you have fuel in the ground, that gives you somewhat of a hedge for a price increase because you're not going to have to buy until you use that whole tank up," Cody said. The tanks at the Highway Department, size-wise, "were really designed for everybody to use," he said. "It's a shame that we haven't utilized them."
   Given the county's decentralized structure, Cody said there are many instances of duplication. "Everybody has got their own bookkeeper, their own mechanic, their own garage. Everybody's got their own way to get fuel -- and everybody thinks they've got the best way to get it. That may not be the truth. We can do things smarter and more efficiently, and it's not going to cost us any more. It's already there."
   The county also will be changing the way vehicle maintenance and repair is done in the new budget year. Bill Ingram at the Carter County Sheriff's Department is a great mechanic, Cody said. "People will tell you he's probably one of the best mechanics around. I can attest, because if you look at how many miles are on those patrol cars ... there probably are several they would have gotten rid of somewhere else, but he keeps them on the road."
   Cody said there is no need to take the county's vehicles elsewhere when it has mechanics of Ingram's caliber, as well as mechanics at the Highway Department who are highly talented and skilled. "You tend to pay them fairly good wages, so you want to utilize those people as much as you can.
   "What's funny is Bill's probably sitting over there on some of the days when it's slow, saying, 'My gosh, I wish I had something to do.' And we're over here saying, 'We've got a squeaky brake; let me take it to Grindstaff or somebody.' That doesn't make sense," Cody said.