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General fund reserves not enough to cover jail

A few years ago, I vaguely remember a story in the Mail Tribune that had the County Manager touting Jackson County’s vast funds stored in a rainy-day style vault somewhere. I want to say that it was around $300 M that had been widely and steadfastly saved over the years. Making Jackson County one of the states better-off counties financially. I bring this up because it seems to me, a new jail and cost of running said jail could be paid for by the county’s reserves, much like how the county Health building and parking garage were built without a bond? — Nick

City Administrator Danny Jordan was quoted in a 2012 story talking about the county’s reserves, Nick, but even then, the amount wasn’t quite as high as $300 million.

Jordan at the time said the combined general and dedicated reserves totaled $85 million.

The “rainy day” fund projected to remain at the end of this fiscal year is $61,592,170, according to the county’s recently-released budget recommendation for 2018-19.

It is not as simple as dipping into those funds to avoid levying a bond to pay for building and operating a new jail, however, said Harvey Braggs, Senior Deputy Administrator for Jackson County.

First, not all of the funds in reserves can be spent as in the general fund, on any purpose the county decides. Some funds are specifically directed for certain divisions — those are called dedicated reserves. For example, Braggs said, money from gas taxes have to go back into county roads — they couldn’t be spent on a new jail.

That pares down the reserves to only what remains in the general fund, which Braggs said is not enough to cover the cost of either building or operating a new jail.

The money saved in reserves also brings in interest that also factors into the budget — the same budget document projects that amount as $1,608,073 by the start of the next fiscal year.

Braggs said the county has to plan its savings not only to comply with the quotas it needs to meet, but also to plan well for the future. At this point, he said, spending general fund reserves on the jail would be “like if you got enough on your tax returns to make the first payment on your truck so you go buy one.”

The county would need to be sure it can make all its payments before gearing general funds in that direction.

A recent survey of Jackson County voters that garnered 329 responses indicated that a majority would not favor a construction bond to finance the new jail. The county has not yet made a decision about how it plans to move forward.

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