LEESBURG, Ga. -- The touted budget hearing "showdown" between Lee County Sheriff Reggie Rachals and the Lee County Commission's Budget Committee Wednesday turned into more of a mutual-respect gathering.
When the briefer-than-expected hearing ended less than an hour after it started, Rachals walked away with 11 new employees and a deeper appreciation for the budget process.
"It was a little bit easier this time around," Rachals said after the hearing, from which he came away with some 330,000 more dollars than he'd had to work with in Fiscal Year 2010. "I think everything went well, probably about the best I could have expected from what I've been hearing about the economy.
"We really appreciate what the Budget Committee and the Commission have done in working with us on this. I think it's going to be a big help for our department."
While he had asked for more employees to bring his department up to full staff, Rachals came away with the funding to hire four new deputees, three jailers, two part-time security officers for the courthouse and two more full-time employees for E911.
Budget Committee Chair Bill Williams said he's pleased that the process went as smoothly as it did.
"We went into the process with a plan in place that would allow us to balance the budget without raising the millage rate," he said. "Because our department heads were willing to work with us, we will be able to do that."
The Commission still has some loose ends to tie up and some tweaking to do with the final budget numbers, but Finance Director Heather Kittrell said there should be no problems with getting those items done.
She also said the question of employee cost-of-living raises, brought up during the hearing by LSO Chief Deputy Lewis Harris, were still on the table, even though Williams told Harris there were no raises currently in the budget.
After the meeting Commission Chair Ed Duffy confirmed that the Lee Budget would include 3 percent cost-of-living increases for county employees.
"There's still some talk about raises, but it's just talk," Kittrell said. "There are a couple of issues that are still pending, so no one's saying no right now. This is a very pro-employee Board, and I know they're trying to find a way to increase employee salaries."
In addition to new personnel in the Sheriff's Office, the Budget Committee also committed half of the $420,000 Rachals had sought to purchase new vehicles, although none of that total will show up in the general fund.
"I changed the general fund total (for vehicle purchases) to zero," Williams said, "but our plans are to buy four vehicles out of SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) funds."
Sheriff's Department Maj. Dennis Parker said the LSO fleet was in dire need of an overhaul.
"We have to patrol X number of miles, so if one of our cars gives out we have to repair it or replace it," Parker said. "Sometimes we end up spending more to repair a vehicle than it would have cost to replace it.
"There was one year when we did not but any new vehicles, and that has put us behind. With so much repair work, there's a good chance we'll go over our budget. If we don't get a few more extra cars soon, especially with new personnel coming on, we're going to be in a mess."
Rachals said an increase in the county's crime rate was the impetus for his budget requests.
"Just look at the number of calls we're responding to now," he told Finance Committee members. "We got around 25,000 calls last year, and as of right now we've almost doubled that this year.
"There's no question our crime rate is going up. But we've been able to do our job because I've good a bunch of dedicated men and women out there on the job. We'll continue to do what everyone's got to do; we'll make adjustments."
After Wednesday's hearing, Duffy offered praise for Rachals and other department heads who worked with the committee to keep expenditures down.
"As we're wrapping this budget process up, we're going to meet our goal of balancing the budget without a tax increase, without cutting jobs and without furloughing employees," he said. "That's because our folks knew what we were up against when we went into the process.
"I'm very pleased that we were able to meet our budget demands and still give Sheriff Rachals more manpower he needs to keep the community safe."
Lee Commissioners Betty Johnson and Rick Muggridge, who are not members of the Budget Committee but who attended most of the hearings, said the process was a successful one.
"There was just a spirit of cooperation throughout this process," Johnson said. "We had discussions with some department heads, but no disagreements. I learned a lot by being a part of this."
"I think being a part of this will help us all to govern better," he said. "I really wish we'd have meetings like this maybe six months into the fiscal year to see where everyone stands with their budget. The more we talk, the more we know about the way each department operates."