The $568.2-million budget Escambia County workshops have started. Here are 3 takeaways from Day 1

Emma Kennedy
Pensacola News Journal

Escambia County commissioners on Tuesday began poring over the county's 2021-2022 budget in the first of two days of workshops that will break down the next year in county government.

The $568.2 million budget is difficult to compare to previous years because the county has switched to a new web-based software called OpenGov to crunch the numbers, said Escambia County Chief Budget Officer Amber McClure, but the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic appear to be reflected in this year’s document with rising costs of operating due in part to a lack of supplies.

The 2021-2022 budget is $19.6 million lower than the previous year, but that is primarily a reflection of differences in how McClure is presenting the budget and streamlining line items in an attempt to more accurately show the actual cost of operating.

Here are three of the primary talking points from Tuesday’s discussion:

Health care, gas, supply costs are all increasing

The cost of operating almost every department is increasing, whether it be the cost of retaining employees or paying for supplies.

Constitutional offices requested a $6.9 million increase, or 10%, and fuel costs are set to increase by 16% next year. The cost of medical care at the jail is up 76%, and cost of living increases for employees account for another $3.3 million in the budget.

The Supervisor of Elections office, for example, needs more temporary workers during the election cycle due to the increased scrutiny and requirements for elections, and will have a higher postage bill moving forward to send return postage on vote-by-mail ballots as an ongoing practice following the pandemic.

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County Clerk and Comptroller Pam Childers called the next budget cycle "a rebuilding year," saying she didn’t need an increase in staff and is only requesting a slight increase in health insurance and software costs. 

Overall, the county is projecting that its health insurance allocation will increase by $4.4 million, or 23%, next year, including an increase from $10,000 to $12,000 per employee.

The county self-insures its employees and will take up a proposal to implement cost-saving measures like wellness programs at the County Commission meeting Thursday.

The county currently has a tobacco-free discount and conducts random tobacco testing of employees, but the new proposal would offer a $50 per month discount on premiums for employees who do an online health assessment and annual biometric screening.

In addition to the constitutional offices and departments within the county, the commission also needs to budget $17.7 million for other mandated expenses like the county health department, the state attorney and public defender, and the court administration, for example.

Among that is the medical examiner's office, which operates within four counties — Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton — and is partially funded by the Escambia County budget.

Medical Examiner Deanna Oleske said during Tuesday's budget meeting that there has been a 120% increase in the per-case cost of items like scalpels and gowns, which are now close to $300 per autopsy. She said the cost of stainless steel is increasing, for example, and she expects to end the year with a 45% increase in deaths.

"I don’t know what’s going on, but I know my law enforcement partners are feeling it, too," she said.

Commissioner Robert Bender suggested trying to have the county purchase some of the personal protective equipment the office needs as it’s already ordering some medical supplies and has a stronger purchasing power, but Oleske said the types of items needed, like scalpels and gloves, are a higher quality than most average supplies.

Sheriff requests 6% pay increase in $72M budget

Sheriff Chip Simmons is requesting a 6% pay increase for his staff to remain competitive with other agencies in their starting pay, but it’s a request not likely to be funded in its entirety based on initial commissioner discussion.

Commissioner Steven Barry said he was disappointed to see an additional $800,000 requested in the sheriff’s budget as historically the board chairman and county administrator negotiate the requests ahead of time, which didn’t happen this year.

Bender, the board's chairman, said he brought forward the requests so the commissioners have the option of discussing them all together, and he’s hoping to ultimately make a multi-year deal with Simmons’ department.

Commissioner Doug Underhill, however, applauded Bender for bringing the negotiations out into the open.

“There will be times a big part of the job will be saying no to people, or saying not quite as much, that kind of thing, and that’s fine, but the fact you did not negotiate this stuff on your own but instead had each of these elected officials bring their budget and requests and what they perceive to be the requirements to do their job to us so we can do this in the sunshine I think is outstanding,” he said.

The request for deputy pay increases is significant because the current fiscal year is the last one under previous Sheriff David Morgan’s agreement with the county. In a contentious back-and-forth that at one point included Morgan appealing to the governor's office before an ultimate settlement, the two entities agreed in 2017 on a multi-year deal to cover deputy pay through 2021.

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Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said Tuesday that it’s likely too late to bring a significant increase over the line in this budget, but he supports a smaller increase and a multi-year deal similar to what has been previously done.

“It is a bit of sticker shock but obviously it costs what it costs, but if we could look at somewhere near 4% (pay increase) with the eye to doing a multi-year deal next year, that’s what I’d be supportive of,” he said.

Commissioner Lumon May said he’s hesitant to commit to increases before looking at the overall budget and what cost of living or merit increases will come to other county-wide employees like bus drivers, EMS and fire.

“It’s way premature to make a commitment to any percentage until we make sure that when we look at the overall budget, every department, that there’s equity and parity for everyone,” he said.  

Deferred maintenance will be an ongoing issue

McClure said her office is pushing for a change in planning to implement a multi-year capital planning budget to map out large expenses and avoid the kind of situation like is happening with the county’s vehicle fleet right now.

She said almost 70% of the county’s 938 vehicles are due for replacement for a cost of $55 million, and as such, the county is expected to spend more than $17 million in repair and maintenance expenses on vehicles in the upcoming fiscal year. That maintenance cost has risen by almost $10 million during the past decade.

McClure said by evaluating the vehicles based on mileage, wear and tear, and priorities of vehicles, that number was pared down to 75 vehicles, or 8%, of the fleet that will be replaced in fiscal year 2022 to the tune of $8.8 million.

Underhill called it an issue of deferred maintenance, and said though the county can’t afford to fix them all at once, whittling down the replacement vehicles is just doing the “bare minimum to get by.”

“We’re getting a lower quality product for a higher expenditure of residents’ money. ... That probably more than anything is definitive of where we’re at today,” he said.

May suggested that moving forward, when the county buys a new vehicle, it should immediately start an account and set aside money for its eventual replacement.

Assessing the county’s vehicle fleet, both by determining what’s necessary to operate and necessary to replace, will likely come before the board in more detail at a later date based on Tuesday’s discussion.

The county’s budget workshop will continue Wednesday where commissioners are expected to take up Local Option Sales Tax projects and community partnerships. The full budget in the new interactive software can be viewed at myescambia.com/our-services/budget.

Emma Kennedy can be reached at ekennedy@pnj.com or 850-480-6979.