A full-time employee making minimum wage earns $13,000 annually. The Calhoun County Judge, the highest elected official in the county, makes only $10,931 annually, albeit in a part-time capacity.
While some counties in Arkansas are in considerably strong fiscal condition, there are others battling to continue providing vital services for its citizens.
Wes Fowler, government relations director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the main issue at the moment is the state’s decision to withhold $1.4 million refund the counties expected to share in transfer tax.
“We kind of got ripped on that,” Fowler said. “They say it’s to help get things stabilized because they think there’s going to be a shortfall.”
Fowler noted that even the smaller counties would have received in the neighborhood of $15,000 or $16,000 each, money that would go a little ways in those areas.
“This was kind of like adding insult to injury,” Fowler said.
The Association of Arkansas Counties serves as the official voice for Arkansas’ counties. Its vision statement reads: To provide a single source of cooperative support and information for all counties and county and district officials through the provisions of general research, public education programs, and conducting seminars for county governments in Arkansas.
The AAC works with workman’s comp and various insurances for all county-elected officials and employees, including rural fire departments.
Perhaps the AAC’s biggest role for the 75 counties is its role in lobbying the state legislature.
Fowler said work has begun on the assembling of legislative packages for sheriff’s and county judges around Arkansas for the 2013 session. The packages will be discussed more thoroughly at the AAC’s annual conference to be held in Springdale Aug. 7-10.
“I know that most of it will be cleanup legislation, stuff that has been passed where we need to be sure where codes have changed,” Fowler said. “I don’t know of any major changes.”
The Department of Finance and Administration’s decision to withhold the b$1.4 million from the counties has had a serious impact in some counties, Fowler said.
“There are a bunch of counties out there that are hurting bad, seriously bad,” he said. “We have been in talk with them and have sent them passed resolutions protesting the fact that the state has held the money because we have counties in such dire straits. We’ve also passed this on to the governor.”
Fowler said counties, particularly the smaller ones, are finding it hard to balance budgets with the mandates of the courts system. Lincoln County (county seat, Star City) in southeast Arkansas, a Class 2 county with a population of 14,134, is one of those Fowler noted as in bad shape financially.
“You just don’t have the tax base to fund everything,” Fowler said. “Lincoln County is laying off folks. The county judge has said that every office is going to have to get rid of at least one employee.
“With the real estate market down and appraisals down, it’s not only hurting the schools but the counties, too. Counties that have lost population are getting less turnback money.”
Others in distress include Class 1 counties Calhoun (county seat, Hampton) in south Arkansas, Prairie (county seats, Des Arc and De Valls Bluff), in east-central Arkansas, and Newton (county seat, Jasper) in northwest Arkansas. Calhoun is the smallest populated county (2010 Census) in the state with 5,368 residents. Prairie and Newton counties each rank in the bottom 10 of the state in population.
“They’re small, but they still have all of these services they have to provide,” Fowler said.
Governor Mike Beebe gave the counties and cities a $4 million raise during the 2009 session, the first such increase in 30 years. While appreciative, Fowler said that raise hardly managed to keep up with inflation.
No counties are headed toward bankruptcy because they are mandated by law to appropriate only 90 percent of estimated revenue, but Fowler said the turnback funds were part of the estimated revenue. “Then, when you don’t get it, it hurts you,” he said.
Natural disasters such as floods, ice storms and tornadoes can also crush a county’s budget, particularly if they are not declared federal disasters.
“The number one thing in the county general budget is the sheriff’s department and the jail,” said Fowler, who previously served as a county judge in rural Madison County for 12 years. “In every county, that makes up about half of the budget. If you can’t make your budget you have to cut. It’s a fine line. There are a lot of hard decisions. It’s basically up to the quorum court on how to make it work and balance the budget.
There are a lot of counties out there in good shape. But, there are some county judges working for about $30,000 a year, and that’s the chief elected officer of a county. Some of the employees are not making $20,000. We are trying to improve our services and increase the benefits packages, not only for elected officials but for all county employees.”