Worth County Health Dept. Chairman Becky Greer, far right, spoke at Thursday’s meeting of the Worth County Commission, protesting proposed cuts to the Health Department budget. Greer told the commissioners Worth County residents were already paying less per capita than others in the 14-county region for health care service.
SYLVESTER, Ga. — With memories of last year’s budget fight fresh in the minds of some unhappy agency heads, the Worth County Commission has submitted a $10,508,078 Fiscal Year 2013 budget, or exactly the same as 2012.
If passed, the budget would mean additional cuts for some agencies and departments, particularly county health, Probate Court and the office of the tax commissioner. Overall, five full-time county positions and one part-time position would be cut.
At a public meeting at the Worth County Courthouse in Sylvester Thursday, a number of agency representatives addressed commissioners. Becky Greer, chairwoman of the county’s Health Department Board, objected to that agency’s cuts, saying it had already dipped into its emergency funds to the tune of $61,000.
Greer said the situation “will keep getting worse,” adding that the department had “just gotten by” on its 2012 budget of $100,000, or $50,000 less than had been requested. The proposed reduction of an additional $25,000 could force the elimination of services not mandated by the state, such as immunizations for flu and tuberculosis.
Following Greer’s appeal, Commissioner Betty Bozeman told her she should explain to the audience that the health department is actually a state agency.
“No, ma’am, it’s not,” Greer said. “This is a county program.”
Greer further stated that although the program receives some state and grant funding, it is supported primarily by the county. She submitted a chart that she said was an accurate disclosure of what each county in the region pays per capita for their health departments. According to the chart, average per capita payment for health services within the 14-county region is $9.94. The highest payment listed was by Baker County residents at $25.30, and the lowest was Worth County at just $3.54.
Worth Probate Judge Sheryl Hall protested the proposed budget reduction to her office, going so far as to present a constitutional challenge to the action, saying the commission has a legal obligation to provide space for her office and to fund what is necessary to operate the office.
“In my opinion,” Hall said, “(the requested probate budget) was a reasonable and adequate budget to serve the 22,000-plus people of Worth County. With a $21,694 cut, I do not feel that the Probate Court can properly serve the needs of Worth County with two people.”
Worth Tax Commissioner Tabetha Dupriest took a similar approach to proposed cuts to her office, telling commissioners that employees of constitutionally elected officers are not, according to the Georgia constitution, considered employees of the county government, and that the county has a legal obligation to appropriate the necessary funds to preserve the county officer’s capacity to execute the basic fundamentals of her office.
According to Dupriest, her office has operated with five employees since 1997, though her workload has increased significantly. She said the work cannot continue at the same level with reduced funding and personnel cuts.
Dupriest’s hourly employees are paid barely more than minimum wage, she said, and now would have 16 furlough days — four more than last year — reducing their income even further. While Dupriest has claimed legal impropriety in the proposed new budget, she said she has no current plans to challenge the cuts in court should the budget be approved.
“I’ve had five employees since 1997,” Dupriest said. “I want (commissioners) to justify to me why I don’t need that (fifth) employee now.”
Dupriest said she believes that sooner or later the county millage rate on property will have to be increased, and it would be better to start easing it up now. According to Dupriest, at least 66 Georgia counties increased their millage rate last year.
“A half-mill increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 property just $20 a year,” she said. “It would bring another $250,000 to the county.”
“I don’t really understand where the majority of the board is coming from,” said County Commissioner Billy McDonald. “This is very similar to last year, in my opinion. Some (departments) are getting increases and some are getting cuts. I believe this should be done in a more fair and equitable way.”
McDonald said he wonders why the local Humane Society is slated for an increase, while the Health Department is being cut. He expressed concern, too, about reductions for the 911 center.
“We cut the fat last year,” McDonald said, “and now we’re slicing our essential services. I know the state’s been cutting health departments, so now (Worth County) is getting hit from both sides.”
Commission Board Chairman Matt Medders said this year’s budget shortfall was the same as last year’s. He cited the county’s economic downturn and said he and the majority of the board remain strong in their decision to keep millage rates the same. There will be a final public meeting at the Worth County Courthouse Thursday, Medders said, after which the board will make final decisions on budget distribution.