Muskogee County commissioners began sorting out the details of a general fund budget for fiscal year 2021 based on projected revenue that is about 1.45% lower that actual collections for the year that ended June 30.
District 3 Commissioner Kenny Payne said there was hope earlier this summer that revenue projections would be better than the $9.98 million used as a starting point for a budget commissioners plan to revisit Monday. Those earlier projections, he said, took a hit by the reality of major flooding in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the projected revenue decline, commissioners expect to budget $9.93 million for the general fund for fiscal year 20121, which began July 1. That represents a 2.64% increase from the nearly $9.52 million approved for fiscal year 2020.
District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke said the revenue outlook “could be a lot worse.”
“We could be way further down than what we are,” Doke said. “In the grand scheme of things nobody likes to have less money than they did the year before, but most of the time we budget kind of flat anyway.”
Muskogee County Assessor Ron Dean said projected revenue reflects the impact from flooding along the Arkansas River and a major fire at Georgia-Pacific’s Muskogee Mill in 2019, and the public health crisis this year. Near historic flooding displaced scores of families and businesses and disrupted navigation for months along McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
Dean said while total valuations appeared promising in June, when “a snapshot” of the preliminary numbers were sent to the state, there were adjustments made between June and August that drove down those figures.
“Basically, we are still feeling some effects from the fire last year out there at Georgia-Pacific and flooding and the effects COVID-19 may be having,” Dean said. “And public service (revenue) was not what we thought it would be.”
While commissioners may have a little less to work with, Sheriff Terry Freeman requested an appropriations increase for his office and the county jail to fund pay raises. He said wages for deputies have been capped at $2,700 a month for years, and it is even less for those who work at the jail.
“The jail is in such bad shape pay-wise it is embarrassing to even talk about it,” Freeman said. “People have no idea what it is like to work at that jail ..., and I just now raised it to $2,000 starting pay ... because I couldn’t find anybody to work at the jail.”
Freeman said if he doesn’t request funding for wage increases now, Sheriff-elect Andy Simmons would have to ask for additional money after he takes office in January. Freeman said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma will result with an increase in federal prisoners at the jail.
The court determined the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation as defined by 1830s-era treaties still exists today for purposes of federal criminal law. States lack jurisdiction to prosecute most crimes committed by — or against — Native Americans, so those must be tried in federal or tribal courts.
Freeman said the anticipated influx in federal inmates “is going to add more stress on the whole facility.” He acknowledged the federal government pays more to house prisoners than states, and much of the additional revenue would be used to offset increased wages included in his budget request.
“That is what I banked on when I started paying $2,000 month,” Freeman said during the budget planning meeting. “I went ahead and rolled the dice and assumed the federal inmate numbers would go up so I could go ahead and start paying that.”
The Oklahoma State University Extension Office also requested an increase from its fiscal year 2020 appropriation due to a decrease in state funding. Doke said state lawmakers have withdrawn support for a number of local programs, increasing the county’s burden to support them financially.
Commissioners plan to revisit the budget on Monday and hammer out a final version.