Ashley County Quorum Court met Dec. 14 to discuss next year’s budget for the county. 

Taking up the budget, Justice Jeff Langley said that it was the same as last year except the cost of telephone service, which has gone up. No positions were added or taken away from county personnel.

In addressing financial matters, the justices discussed a proposal that would give each county employee $2,000 in premium pay which would be funded by American Rescue Plan money. Justice Ronnie Wheeler wanted to take a moment to discuss an alternative, asking about a cost-of-living raise. Langley said that in budget committee meetings there had been a proposal to provide a 3 percent cost of living increase to be taken from the general funds — which would amount to a cost of $170,000. 

The budget committee decided, however, that giving the $2,000 was preferable because after running the numbers, no employee would be losing out on any monetary amount they would have received had it been a raise instead of premium pay. 

The committee made that decision in light of information they had received about Georgia Pacific’s (GP) tax obligations. GP has been making changes to its industrial footprint, which includes removing structures, and the justices said they want to see how this year plays out before making any decisions, such as raises, that they could not change once made. 

When the justices asked Tax Assessor Beth Rush about GP, she told them that as long as the buildings are there, they are still taxable. The company has turned in decommissioned salvage reports on the business but is still paying taxes. If they have not given any information to the contrary by Jan. 1, then there will still be taxes to be collected on those buildings. 

Bringing the discussion back to pay raises, Wheeler pointed out that giving someone a lump sum does not have the same value as giving someone a raise, because a raise is a permanent increase and also contributes toward retirement and benefits. Wheeler’s idea was to give a 2 percent cost of living increase out of the general funds, with a remaining one percent to be taken out of the ARP funds. When Wheeler’s proposal went to a vote, Justice Rhonda Pippen and Justice Bille Pippen, voted for it, but without any other support, it did not pass. 

The justices instead adopted the original proposal of $2,000 premium pay after Jan. 1 for each county employee.

In other news, the justices rejected a proposal that would have allowed District Judge Reid Harrod to use local funds to pay his court’s clerks for administering probation since probation officers are no longer assigned to district courts.

Harrod had submitted four orders of payments totaling $4,172, and both the Hamburg and Crossett mayors had previously agreed to the proposal. The funds would have compensated the county court clerks who had taken on extra responsibilities in order for probationary processes to function, and the money would have cleared through the county’s books.

Wheeler said he discussed the particulars of the arrangements for the payments that Harrod proposed with consultant Eddie Jones, and the consensus was that the legality of the arrangement the judge had proposed was in question.

Wheeler and Jones came up with an alternate solution to put those fees into funds that the cities of Crossett and Hamburg could use to pay the clerks. The ordinance, however, did not clear the floor when put to the wider body because some members wanted it noted that they simply wanted the personnel and policy committees to take a look at it before they voted to approve it.

After going through the entire budget line by line, members requested second and third readings by title only, and the court adopted it.