County Walks A Thin Fiscal Line -- A Storm Or Trial Could Topple It

May 19, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

If the economy picks up and there are no expensive emergencies, county citizens may never know how close their government was to unraveling.

But if emergencies do come -- severe wind- or snowstorms, prolonged jury trials, breakdowns in equipment extended one or two years past the usual replacement time -- residents will learn just how broke their government is.

They might still find out even without emergencies.

For as difficult as it has been to make ends meet in the coming $270 million budget -- 40 layoffs, no raises, no equipment replacement -- balancing the fiscal 1993 budget could be far worse if the country is still in a recession.

Director of Public Works James M. Irvin says broken down or blown-out equipment could create "major problems" in his department, where equipment is the "backbone" of the operation.

Equipment is usually the first cut the County Council looks to make from theexecutive's budget. As a result, even in good years, Public Works was always behind in its five- or six-year equipment replacement cycle.But it's worse now because the department has been unable to replaceits fleet for the last two budget cycles.

Responding to a storm in the middle of the night in equipment that can blow up at any momentis a "pretty daunting experience," Irvin says. He estimates that 60 or 70 trucks alone will have to be replaced in the fiscal 1993 budgetat a cost of $50,000 or more per truck. And that's just the beginning. Fixed costs like road resurfacing continue to expand because the county is still growing, he says.

Altogether, the county has slightly more than $1 million in its contingency reserve fund to deal with emergencies in the fiscal year that begins July 1. A public works emergency could wipe out the fund in a night. So too could the state's attorney's office -- only it would take a little longer. After paying salaries, State's Attorney William R. Hymes' office has but $120,000 left to pay jurors or transportation and lodging costs for witnesses.

"There has been a tremendous increase in the items associated with trials," Hymes said.

In the past, an expert witness in a murder or rape case might have testified at no expense to the government.

Now, Hymes says, a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) laboratory test to determine "genetic fingerprints costs $3,800 per lab test and $3,000 a day for the technician to testify," not including transportation and lodging expense.

Hymes says he has several "high profile" cases pending that could "increase costs tremendously" unless the defendants plead guilty.

He is very likely to return to the county coffers inthe next year, he said.

Hymes also cites the county's growth as asource of increased cost.

"Every year the population increases 10,000 to 15,000 -- the equivalent of a small city," he said. As a consequence, there is more crime and more cases to try, he said.

Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo is virtually certain he will be seeking contingency money in the next year because his entire fleet of sheriff's cars is "beyond repair."

"All we've done is put on a Band-Aid," Chiuchiolo said. "Sooner or later we've got to catch up."

Catching up means not only replacing decrepit automobiles, it also means increasing salaries and getting computer equipment, he said. Computer equipment -- "We don't even have a word processor" -- was cut out of the last two budgets, he said, and the salaries of deputies are "well below what they should be."

Deputy County Administrator Cecil E. Bray is facing many of the same problems as Chiuchiolo, only on a larger scale.

Bray is responsible for the county's purchasing division, its mail and copying services and its data-processing division.

He says a five-year plan to improve the county's computerized informationservices has already been cut back and will not be expanded into anynew areas, except to support new legislation. The further behind hisdepartments get, the harder it is and the more time and money it takes to turn them around, Bray said.

Bray is also one of the county's chief union negotiators.

All four employee unions will be negotiating contracts next year. With no raises and other cutbacks this year, negotiations next year will be "very sensitive," he said.

Bray said his worst fear is that when it becomes time to negotiate, the county will be no better-off than now.

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