Wolf: ‘Financial planets’ aligned against Berrien County

Published 4:28 pm Thursday, April 19, 2012

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County faces a number of financial challenges in the coming years.

Among the interrelated issues are a decline in general fund revenues, increased costs of 911 emergency dispatch and unfunded necessary capital improvements, County Administrator Bill Wolf told commissioners Thursday.

The county board held a workshop to discuss the challenges and begin a conversation on how to address them.

Perhaps the most pressing issue for the county is an estimated $5.6 million gap in the 911 budget over the next five years. Currently, the county funds emergency dispatch through a 0.25-mill levy and a $0.42 surcharge on communication devices.

Wolf presented a variety of solutions, including increasing the millage and/or the surcharge rate. The county could also begin charging local governmental units for the service. The final option would be to reduce 911 expenditures significantly and cancel funding for planned technology upgrades.

“This would seriously threaten our ability to provide this essential service,” Wolf said.

Commissioner John LaMore said he would prefer increasing the surcharge on cell phones to fund 911.

“I really like the idea of a single source,” he said.

Wolf’s recommendation to the board is to ask voters to increase the millage to 0.45 mills and to increase the surcharge by $0.18 per device. Ultimately, the board will decide appropriate action.

Regarding the general fund, the county is facing a $1.1 million shortfall entering the 2013 budgeting process. This is the result of the continual decline in revenue sharing and reductions in personal property taxable value and real taxable value, Wolf said. The potential phasing out of the state personal property tax would also be a big hit.

“The financial planets have aligned against Berrien County,” Wolf said.

The possible solutions include making severe cuts to the 2013 budget while dipping into the fund balances of the general fund or delinquent tax fund. Wolf also presented a few potential solutions involving special millages.

Turning to capital infrastructure issues, Wolf said the county is short about $13.2 million for needed projects.

The new animal shelter is still $786,900 short. The jail intake area needs renovations, which will cost about $5.4 million. Wolf said the county also should consolidate its health department, which currently has five sites. He estimates it would cost about $7 million for such a project.

Despite the many financial challenges ahead, Wolf said there is a “light at the end of the tunnel.” He said many of the investments the county has made in technology will start reaping financial benefits.

“We’re moving on the path of being more efficient,” he said.