Upset county office holders storm commissioner's office

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

LOGAN — Hocking County Commissioners were not in the holiday spirit Tuesday after county officials and workers stormed their office in protest of their 2014 budgets.

Hocking County Municipal Court Judge Fred Moses has requested mitigation help from the Supreme Court of Ohio Commission in Dispute Resolution, which offers free mediation to help solve budgetary matters, after his proposed budget of $418,837 was denied. Commissioners voted 2-1 last week to allocate $343,198 for his 2014 budget.

The five departments whose budgets cannot be controlled by the commissioners include the Hocking County Common Pleas Court, Hocking County Juvenile/Probate Court, Hocking County Municipal Court, Hocking County Board of Elections and Hocking County Veteran’s Association.

Before anything can be resolved, though, commissioners must agree to meet with a mediator.

Moses said at Tuesday’s meeting that in recent weeks he’s heard the phrase “the Hocking County way” used in a negative way. “In other words, outside the law, outside the legal process, way to get away with things, disregard to the public to keep them out of the process,” he told commissioners. “We need to turn this around.”

Moses said he’s tried of working with commissioners about his office budget, and has told them his court is funded illegally, based upon a recent state audit. “It took the outside audit to show what I have been telling you all along,” Moses said. “Why won’t you acknowledge it?

“I want to know how the process works?” he continued. “How did you come up with the budget? Did you meet with Ken Wilson individually? When and why not in public? Who gives you legal advice?”

“Well it’s not me,” interjected Hocking County Prosecutor Laina Fetherolf, who also was at the meeting. “You’ve never called me for advice, except for Sandy (Ogle).”

Moses continued questioning commissioners, who replied that if the county continued on the track it’s on, commissioners will be working with a deficit.

Hocking County Commissioner Clark Sheets said he would like to give people their requested amounts, but the county needs to bring in additional revenue first.

Although Fetherolf received her requested amount, she was frustrated that she didn’t learn about the commissioner’s finalized budget decision until contacted by The Logan Daily News. The amount Fetherolf requested does not match with the amount in the official budget, though, because she wrote her salary amount in the wrong column, and it was was inadvertently added a second time by the auditor’s office later. It’s an oversight Fetherolf said could have been avoided if commissioners had met with the department heads prior to approving the budget.

“What I’m upset about is that I did not ask for $478,000,” Fetherolf told commissioners. “I’m not a greedy person and I don’t want people thinking I asked for that amount. What I asked for was what I submitted on my worksheet and that was $374,000 and that’s what was approved. I didn’t ask for $104,000 more. I appreciate that you gave me more, but it looks like you cut $100,000 from my budget that we didn’t ask for. Someone should have called and asked why I had requested so much, but no one did.”

Fetherolf’s approved budget in 2014 is $385,404.

Hocking County Treasurer Diane Sargent referred to Hocking County Auditor Ken Wilson when questioning commissioners about who had final approval of the county budget. “I picked up my copy of the approved budgets yesterday and talked to the auditor,” Sargent said. “The auditor is not the fourth commissioner and cannot dictate my budget. The auditor and you (referring to the commissioners) made my decision on my budget without meeting with me or asking me anything about it.”

“Did you look at the handwritten worksheets or the printed out version of the budgets?” Fetherolf asked. “All you took was his (Wilson’s) word.”

While Sargent pointed out that her department’s salary request decreased, commissioners failed to discuss it with her. “There was nothing discussed on the budget,” Sargent said. “Ken and (commissioner) John (Walker), and Clark and Ken met and discussed this, but no department heads were contacted to discuss this.”

Sargent said she would not be able to give her staff a pay raise this year. The last raise for her two staffers was 30 cents in 2012.

“My staff has a lot of financial responsibilities in my office,” Sargent noted. “Not just mopping floors or cleaning up dog doo doo.”

According to Wilson, a letter was sent to each department head asking to keep their 2014 budgets at the 2013 approved level of $7,258,544. Yet several departments requested additional funding. County offices requested a total of $7,815,442, but when commissioners and the auditor crunched the numbers, they could not approve all that was requested. Instead, Hocking County Commissioners set the 2014 budget at $7,593,021, which is $334,477 over the modified amount allotted for the 2013 budget.

The 2014 budget was approved by Sheets and Hocking County Commissioner John Walker at the Dec. 19 meeting. Hocking County Commissioner Sandy Ogle voted against its approval since it wasn’t discussed in an open meeting, and county department heads did not have a chance to review the proposal. Ogle did not request the budget be discussed in an open forum either.

Among those who were denied full funding were the offices of Hocking County Treasurer, Hocking County Juvenile Court, Hocking County Clerk of Courts, Hocking County Coroner, Hocking County Municipal Court, Hocking County Board of Elections and Hocking County Recorder.

With a carryover balance of $2 million to $3 million, some office leaders questions why their budgets were not approved. According to Wilson, if commissioners utilized a portion of the carryover fund to approve the budgets as submitted, it would eventually create a county deficit.

Hocking County Coroner Dave Cummin also voiced concern about his budget since it included salaries to maintain his office’s two current employees. “This is a costly mistake on their part,” Cummin said. “Everybody in law enforcement is going to suffer because of their poor decision.”

Due to a lack of funding to pay his two assistants, Cummin will no longer have help covering deaths in the county, he said. “They are going to learn the hard way,” he said. “It’s going to cost the county more money to have a (medical doctor) cover an accident or any death in the county than it would if they had just approved what I requested. How am I supposed to do my job if they won’t provide me the tools necessary to perform my duties?”

Cummin requested $24,002 to maintain his two employees, but was allotted $8,300 for both. His total budget request was $74,326, but commissioners approved $59,124.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Sargent requested commissioners rescind their motion to approve next year’s budget and work on an interim budget instead.

Walker suggested that moving into the future, commissioners might be able to change things and meet with the department heads individually, but said it was too late for this year because the budget had already been finalized.

“It makes me upset with the way that the commissioners handled this budget with only conferring with the auditor and not with the department heads to decide why they were asking for changes in their office budgets,” Sargent said. “I have two employees who have worked for me since 2005 and 2006 and their hourly wages are $10.15 and $11.51 per hour. It’s getting hard to keep good employees without any raise incentives and the office budget getting cuts when others can keep their higher budgets and receive more on top. The auditor should not be the deciding factor for the other offices’ budgets.”