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Published: Wednesday, 12/27/2006

Fulton County might not cut budget as deeply

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAUSEON - Fulton County's year-end finances don't appear quite as tight as the last prediction, so budget cuts for several county-funded agencies might not be as severe as the county administrator recommended almost two weeks ago.

Late yesterday afternoon, County Administrator Vond Hall was working on a proposal that would provide:

•$35,000 less for the Fulton Soil and Water Conservation District in 2007 compared to this year. That would give the district $140,000 in county funds, down from $175,000 this year. On Dec. 14, Mr. Hall had recommended a $75,000 cut to the conservation district, which would have given it $100,000 in county funds.

•$25,000 less for the county's Ohio State University Extension next year compared to this year - $244, 000 instead of $269,000, but higher than the $209,000 appropriation Mr. Hall recommended earlier this month.

•The same $30,000 for the Fulton County Historical Museum as was provided this year, instead of a $10,000 cut.

More changes could be made before the commissioners vote on the 2007 budget tomorrow morning, said Jack Graf, president of the board.

"We've said all along we look at it every day. Till we have the final figure, we won't make a decision," he said.

But if the county's revenue for the year is higher than earlier estimates, as appeared to be the case yesterday, commissioners are in agreement to reduce the cuts' severity, he said.

The news thrilled leaders of the three groups that were to get hit.

"That's great," said Carl Buehrer, the historical society's vice president.

But he said museum director Barbara Berry had turned in her resignation last week - just days after the last proposal for more severe cuts was announced - in part because of budget pressures. Her resignation is effective Sunday, and she is on vacation until then.

The $30,000 the society got from the county this year accounted for two-thirds of its $45,000 budget.

Society leaders have decided to open the museum only by appointment this winter to save on heating costs. Whether they hire a full-time or part-time director depends on how much they get from the commissioners, Mr. Buehrer said.

When the museum reopens for the season in March, however, Mr. Buehrer promised it would have more evening and weekend hours than in the past.

How Ms. Berry's resignation might affect the museum's new project of posting on the Internet some of its collection of 19th century letters, exchanged between soldiers away at war and their families home in Fulton County, was unclear yesterday. "Anything we can carry on, we will probably do so," Mr. Buehrer said.

Conservation district supervisors met last night to talk about the budget cuts, though they were not expected to make decisions until next month.

If the county's budget cut for conservation were the original $75,000, the district is almost certain to reduce staff, said Kim Bowles, district program administrator.

Even if the district is cut by $35,000 as proposed yesterday, it will receive $87,000 less in county funds than the $227,000 it got in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, county funding for conservation was reduced to $172,000 and then commissioners boosted it to $175,000 this year.

At the county extension office, County Director Greg LaBarge said last night a cut of $25,000 might mean reduced hours for some employees. But much of the difference, he said, could be offset with more grant money and reduced travel expenses.

If the cut were to go deeper, he said, "There becomes a point where you can't cut anything out but personnel."

Yesterday's budget proposal also included cuts to various courts, public defenders, and other county officials in hopes, Mr. Hall said, that they might be able to make do with less.

Whether those cuts will be carried out if the courts' expenses run high was uncertain. Unlike conservation, extension, and the museum, the county is required by law to provide certain legal services.

For instance, for public defenders, Mr. Hall yesterday was budgeting $124,500 for 2007. This year the county has spent almost $193,000 of its $205,000 public-defender budget.

"I might not be able to sustain that cut," Mr. Hall said. "A court order is a court order."

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.



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