NASHVILLE — With the upcoming budget process, Berrien County Commissioners are looking to fulfill a promise made to county residents in 2006 and roll back the millage rate, which currently stands at 18 mills.

After heated public debate in August 2006, commissioners increased the millage from 14.5 to 18 mills in order to successfully operate the county within the budget. The first 17 mills were to be used for general county operation, leaving the final mill to be applied to the debt balance accumulated by the county over a number of years, which totaled approximately $1.5 million. Commissioners also told citizens that once a portion of the debt was paid down and the county found firm financial footing, the millage would be rolled back.

Since that time, a state-mandated public defender‘s office, the 911 center voted into operation by the citizens and the new jail increased the county’s debt to approximately $2 million, half of which has already been paid down. The entire debt on the old recycling plant has also been retired after nearly 10 years, according to Commission Chairman Robert Griner.

Before the millage increase, the county would borrow approximately $1.5 million annually, pay it back at the end of the year and then turn around and borrow the same money again. 2007 was the first year in many years that the county did not have to borrow money for basic operating expenses, according to County Administrator Elaine Shiver.

Over the last two years, the county has paid off more than half of its debt and has successfully operated within the budget giving commissioners the confidence that, even will a millage decrease, the trend can continue and the entire debt can be paid off within one year.

“The county is now operating on our own money for the first time in many, many years,” Griner said in an interview with The Times.

Commissioners set three goals for county operations at the time of the 2006 millage increase, which included operating in the black, paying off the county’s debt and, finally, lowering the millage as soon as was economically feasible.

“The county is now in a position where we are able to lower the millage 33 and one-third percent, or 1 mill,” Griner said. “We are proud of what we’ve accomplished as far as getting our financial house in order.”

A number of operational changes have led to the decrease in the overall debt and the ability for the county to operate within its means, according to Griner.

The most significant of those changes has occurred within the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office. In the last two months, under the leadership of new Sheriff Anthony Heath, the department has been able to increase fines collected by tens of thousands of dollars per month over the previous year. Approximately 16 percent of every tax dollar goes to fund the sheriff’s office, which has an overall budget of $855,00 and the jail, operating on a $703,000 annual budget. Increased patrols by the sheriff’s office, especially on highways, and new programs allowing prisoners to work and pay for room and board at the new jail, have allowed these two departments to nearly pay for themselves.

Changes were also made in the county’s road department, to which approximately 13 percent of every tax dollar goes to fund. Replacing equipment that was more than 20 years old with new equipment has increased efficiency and decreased downtime in this department, which maintains the county’s 550 miles of dirt road.

Finally, policy changes have led to the overall increase in the financial health of the county. Before each budget is approved, the entire commission meets with every department head to review every line item of each proposed budget. Griner stated that each department head is conscious about what the commissioners are working to accomplish and each has done their part to operate within their budget and have proven successful over the last two years.

Commissioners have also worked to utilize any additional revenue collected to pay down the debt. Revenue from the sale of landfill acreage, totaling $160,000 was put toward the debt and as soon as all county departments move into the newly constructed Administration Building, revenue from the sale of the old buildings used for county business will also be put toward that balance. The final payment is expected to be made by the end of the 2009 calendar year, according to Shiver.

Though the commission is proposing a decrease in the millage, citizens should recognize that costs continue to rise in every area of government operations. According to Griner, a load of gasoline and a load of diesel would cost the county $12,000 three years ago. Those same two loads of fuel now cost the county $28,000.

Griner stated that commissioners do not want to hastily decrease taxes and have to turn around and re-raise them, however, with new policies and sound financial stewardship the county be able to fully operate within its means on 17 mills.

The official vote on the new millage rate will take place in August or September.

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