WAUSEON - A warning sign of sorts has been hung in the Fulton County commissioners' office, signaling the financial crunch that looms for county departments this year.
"Due to the current financial restraints, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off until further notice," it reads.
Yesterday, news started to leak out across the county just how bad that situation really is: For the first time, the majority of Fulton County employees could face a pay cut of five hours a week, with agency doors closed to the public during that time.
Citing ongoing drops in interest income, along with increases in some expenses, County Administrator Vond Hall has projected a $400,000 general fund budget deficit at the end of 2005 if no cuts are made to county departments' budget proposals.
He's proposed to a few department heads to cut the county's 300 hourly and salaried workers by five hours of pay each week. He hasn't officially pitched the idea to the commissioners. The proposal, should it start at the end of July as he's suggested, would save the county more than $500,000 in wages and benefits through the end of next year, Mr. Hall said.
He said the changes could be made by slashing an hour from every workday, or implementing a half-day workday once a week county-wide.
The proposal would not apply to the sheriff's office, he said, and would impact only those departments that operate within the general fund.
Mr. Hall said none of the officials he's contacted thus far has said "absolutely not" to his reduction-in-hours proposal. They also agreed that a half-day workday would make the most sense but that it would have to
be instituted uniformly.
He said county leaders have been warned for years about depleting county funds, and they've been told to cut costs.
"This day didn't sneak up on us. This day has arrived," Mr. Hall said.
But many county employees are upset about the proposal.
"I'm not particularly happy about it - a cut in hours is a cut in pay," said Pam Yoder, who's worked in the county treasurer's office since 1980.
She said the issue was a topic in her office yesterday, with employees sharing their unrest about the possibility of seeing smaller paychecks.
Clerk of Courts Mary Gype said yesterday she was seeking answers directly after hearing secondhand about the proposal.
She said her four clerks at the courthouse and the three clerks who work in the county's title office already are facing time constraints in completing their jobs with current 35-hour workweeks.
"Cutting hours: I don't know how we'd get our work done," she said.
"With paperwork, we work to full tilt all day.
"Being a major service to the people and having to have work done timely, it would be difficult [if this happened]."
Ms. Gype suggested instead that the county's 1 percent sales tax should be raised by a half-percent on the dollar, something that has been discussed previously as an option.
Commissioner Dean Genter recently suggested raising the sales tax by that amount, which could be done without a public vote. But he added that county leaders should look at cutting expenses before seeking that option.
Mr. Hall said the county's current 1 percent sales tax generates $4 million a year. As of now, though, he also feels that the county budgets and possibly employee hours should be cut without asking taxpayers for more money.
The administrator said commissioners should have more answers at their fingertips this morning when State Rep. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta) meets with them at the commissioners' hearing room.
Mr. Hall said commissioners sought the meeting in part because of budget woes.
He said they want to ask Mr. Buehrer for his thoughts about the future stability of local government funds and whether the amount of sales tax that counties can levy will one day be increased.