HAMILTON - HAMILTON - Now under the umbrella of the Marion County Commission, the Marion County Probate Judge is expected to fire about a $183,000 direct hit into the county’s General Fund.
The commission held numerous budget hearings during the month of September, where it discussed its financial situation and looked into several opportunities to save money in the upcoming year.
Concluding the process, the commission unanimously passed a $10.4 million operating budget at a special-called meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 19.
At an initial hearing on Sept. 5, Marion County Commission Administrator Brooke Slatton told the commission that despite decreasing expenditures by as much as $200,000 and increasing revenue from the previous year, the county may only have $1,500 in wiggle-room for FY 2019.
Slatton said that this is due to several factors, including operating the county’s probate office, raised rates on employee health insurance and a possible increase to the Marion County Jail’s healthcare service bill.
She presented several options to the commission for potential savings. This included changing auditing services and hiring a cost negotiation firm for jail inmate healthcare bills.
Slatton even suggested that the commission consider gauging the use of the Marion County Courthouse’s air conditioning, which she says runs continuously even when not needed.
Regulating the use throughout the year could easily save the commission $4,000-$5,000 annually.
“In this kind of situation, every little bit helps,” Slatton said.
The administrator also noted the county was able to find $17,650 in savings by not renewing a part-time position in the Marion County Emergency Management Agency.
Beginning January 2019, Marion County will no longer be one of two counties in Alabama to still use the old fee system method to operate its probate judge’s office.
The fee system set the probate office as a separate entity from the county commission and paid the judge’s salary and office expenses and employees from revenue generated by the office (driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, ect.).
Marion County Probate Judge Rocky Ridings (2012-2018) campaigned heavily on switching the office to a salary system, which would designate the office as a county entity and provide the judge and employees with county benefits.
After election, Ridings said that the commission refused to work with him to negotiate the options for the office and he took matters into his own hands and had special legislation, House Bill 359, introduced and passed with the help of the county’s legislative delegation, state House District 17 Rep. Mike Millican, R-Hamilton, state Senate District 4 Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, and state Senate District 6 Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia.
During the process, Ridings came under heavy criticism by the commission, who ultimately filed suit against the bill. The commission lost its case, but was able to get some clarity on the bill’s language.
The salary system will be implemented in Marion County beginning in 2019.
According to the new salary system, a first-year probate judge will receive 71 percent of a first-year district judge’s salary of $118,947, equaling $84,452 annually paid out of the county commission’s general fund.
Per the legislation, this will increase 1.25 percent each year of service up to a maximum of 25 percent from the base salary—a $1,056 step raise per service year.
The probate salary, with benefits, is now worth at least $112,000. In 2017, Ridings said he had made $96,000.
Ridings was unseated in the July Republican runoff election by Deputy District Attorney for the 25th Circuit Court Paige Vick.
Vick will face Marion County District 4 Commissioner and Independent probate candidate Mike “Sac” Davis in the Nov. 6 general election.
Cost of the probate
Slatton told the commission that the county will benefit from the fees collected from the probate office, which is expected to bring in an estimate $180,000 next year.
However, the fees will not cover the $362,909 that it will take to operate the probate judge’s office, pay for training and pay for the probate judge’s and three full-time employees’ salaries and benefits.
Probate fees are expected to only offset about half the operating cost and a remaining $182,909 will dig into the commission’s General Fund.
The administrator said that this means, as a whole new commission, save District 5 commissioner Bob Burleson, is seated in the upcoming months, she will need to find more ways to cut back and create more revenue.
Employee health insurance costs increasing
The county employee health insurance premiums are increasing 5 percent in the upcoming year for two factors.
Slatton told the commissioner that the county did not have at least 5 percent of the health coverage on retirees and not enough county employees participated in a wellness screening program over the summer months.
According to the administrator, this caused the health insurance provider to up its rates.
This translates to $24 more a month for individual coverage for a total of $516 per month which the county pays 100 percent; and $60 more per month for family plan health coverage for a total of $1,301, of which the county pays 70 percent, or $904.
Slatton noted that the family coverage, of which 22 county employees are enrolled, costs the commission about $400 more per month than single coverage. In all, she said this will cost the county’s General Fund $15,000.
Jail health care costs increasing
The Marion County Sheriff’s Department may have to incur an increase of $45,000 to its bill for inmate health services.
Dr. Johnny Bates of QCHC Inc. in Birmingham sent a letter to the commission explaining that he is expanding the in-jail nurse’s hours by 16 hours and having her work weekends.
Slatton told the commission that Bates chose to increase the jail’s bill because of the consistent over-capacity at the facility. Over the years, the jail’s average population has climbed from 85 inmates to 135.
QCHC has been the health provider for the jail since 2013 and has from that time supplied the jail with a nurse five days a week.
Marion County Commission Attorney Scott Hunt is reviewing Bate’s request to determine if the increase is optional.
The commission may have a way to further reduce health service costs by having a third-party conduct billing negotiations instead of QCHC.
Slatton said that as price negotiation services are being removed from the county’s contract with QCHC, Bate’s annual fee may be reduced.
Commissioners met with officials from Millennium Risk Managers (MRM) of Birmingham on Sept. 12 to discuss potential ways of reducing inmate health service costs.
The company offers repricing services for jail systems by negotiating health care costs with billing companies.
Risk Managers President Terry Young told the commission that the only fees that the commission would pay is 15 percent of its gross savings.
In April, MRM said that they were able to reduce a month’s worth of healthcare bills for Chilton County Jail from $345,134 to as little as $43,989, with savings as much as $301,144.
Slatton said that Hunt would have to review the QCHC contract and see what options are available for the county.
Changing audit contract
Alabama Department of Revenue representative Cameron Clark met with the commission on Sept. 5 to discuss how the department could catch additional savings during county audits.
According to the analyst, Revenue Distribution Services (RDS) of Birmingham, which currently provides the county with audit services as a third-party company, missed as much as $49,000 in possible collections during a 10-month period between Oct. 1, 2017, and July 31.
What is more, according to Clark, with fees and percentages taken into consideration, RDS charged the county $182 more than the firm was able to produce in audit collections—$32,492 in collections, while RDS charged the county roughly $32,675 in fees.
Clark said that the ADR is able to create local audit leads as it reviews state collections.
“If they owe us money, they probably owe you money,” Clark said.
Slatton said that Hunt is reviewing the commission’s contract with RDS to determine what action can be taken.
See complete story in the Journal Record.