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County facing deficit but not sure where to turn for loans

PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (Dec. 16, 2008) — Borrowing time has arrived for Pulaski County, which faces a deficit expected to be at least $150,000.

Commissioners asked department heads to submit all bills by last week that need to be paid by the end of the year, and Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall said the county has no choice left but to borrow money because of major cost overruns in the general revenue portion of the budget, which is funded by a countywide sales tax.

Ransdall said the county’s auditors have said commissioners need to borrow in-house from other funds rather than seeking commercial bank loans. Two county funds have sizeable surpluses: the courthouse maintenance fund, which is governed by a separate board, and the road and bridge department, which is primarily funded by property taxes rather than sales taxes.

“We need to discuss the borrowing of money for general revenue. Where and how are we going to do that?” Ransdall asked. “The auditors say we need to borrow this in-house.”

Members of the County Facilities Board have previously received a request to consider a loan to the county but said they didn’t like the idea and preferred that the county seek commercial bank financing.

While the road and bridge department budget is under the commission’s control, voters decided decades ago to support it by a property tax that can be used only for road maintenance. County Commissioner Dennis Thornsberry strongly opposed loaning money from the county’s road and bridge fund to the general revenue budget and said it may not be legal to do so, except for a provision that would allow the road and bridge department to spend $30,000 for others in the courthouse to provide clerical services.

“As far as borrowing in-house from road and bridge, I’d like to see in statute where we can do that,” Thornsberry said. “I don’t care what an auditor says; I want to see it in law.”

Thornsberry, who will leave office in slightly more than two weeks, said it’s not fair to his successor, Ricky Zweerink, for Thornsberry to make a decision near the end of his term that Zweerink will have to live with for the next four years.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Thornsberry said. “I’m not going to leave here putting him in jeopardy to help general revenue; I’m not even going to discuss it.”

Commissioner Bill Farnham said he didn’t like the idea, either.

“I agree with you; I don’t want to be borrowing from road and bridge for general revenue because we don’t know if we’re going to have enough,” Farnham said.

Ransdall said commissioners need to act soon since the general fund has a serious deficit that must be balanced. Most of the overrun is due to expenses in the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department, which includes a separate fund for jail expenses. Both the main sheriff’s budget and the jail budget are far overspent for the year.

“All the offices in the courthouse are in budget except this one, and we’re going to have to make a decision,” Ransdall said.

“To me there’s only one answer: we’re going to have to ask the voters for more money,” Farnham said. “What alternative do we have?”

Farnham said he knows a tax increase won’t be popular with voters due to the state of the economy but said the county’s dire financial condition gives commissioners little choice. 

Ransdall said he doesn’t see much hope on the horizon for new revenue, noting that even St. Robert, which has the county’s largest municipal budget, is anticipating sales tax revenues for 2008 will be flat with no revenue increase. Ransdall said even though the 700-member 94th Engineer Battalion returned Sunday from a deployment, the 200-member 50th Multirole Bridge Company will deploy soon and no new businesses generating large amounts of sales tax are expected in Pulaski County next year.

“The point is with the economy the way it is, if you listen to the media they expect more law enforcement problems with people going out and stealing,” Ransdall said. “It’s not going to be a fun time. Normally we’re talking now about a pay increase, not taking out a loan.”

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