Lowndes County is like any other employer, Board of Supervisors President Trip Hairston told the Rotary Club of Columbus on Tuesday afternoon. It’s struggling to find people to fill vacant positions and feeling the bite of higher prices for just about everything.
Those struggles are especially relevant now, as the county is beginning to wrangle with next year’s budget, he said.
“(Employee retention) is a major issue,” Hairston told Rotarians at their weekly meeting in Lion Hills Center. “It really affects public safety. Think about juvenile detention. We’re paying those people $14 an hour. It’s tough to retain those officers, and they require special training and deal with real-world problems. … They can go to McDonald’s and make more than that.”
The issue also affects sheriff’s deputies, 911 dispatchers and even equipment operators in the road department, he said.
“We have a lot of equipment operators now in the road department who are facing retirement,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to replace them. We can find people, but then we train them and we lose them three weeks later because they find another job in another county. We’re going to have to address that.”
Inflation also is bearing down on the county’s budget, Hairston said, especially when it comes to fuel. Those higher fuel costs don’t just affect trucks, equipment and sheriff’s patrol vehicles, he said.
“It’s driving the cost of asphalt up,” he said. “The price of asphalt has gone from $107 a ton to $160 per ton. That was our last estimate, and that’s a major, major increase.”
Supply chain issues are dogging county efforts to get new vehicles at the sheriff’s department, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of aging vehicles in the fleet at the sheriff’s department right now,” Hairston said. “We have a lease (agreement) to get some more, but the leasing company, even with their buying power, can’t get patrol vehicles. You just can’t get them.”
The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office entered an agreement with Enterprise Fleet Management earlier this year to manage its vehicles, including replacing old units and managing maintenance. The Columbus Police Department followed suit in June.
Rising costs are also steadily eating away at the buying power of the county’s $11.4 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, Hairston said.
“That money today only buys about 40 percent of what it did when we first received the money,” he said. “And that’s because of inflation.”
The county has set aside about $5 million for water and sewer projects; $3 million for government services, which includes mostly costs associated with the ARPA funds themselves, including the salary of a new employee who would manage ARPA-related records; $1.6 million for nonprofits; $500,000 for tourism; and $300,000 for a city blight prevention initiative.
The only money that has been spent thus far is about $350,000 for $1,000 one-time premium pay for county employees.
In less downbeat news, Hairston said work is underway at the sports complex west of Columbus.
In April the supervisors voted to move forward with the approximately $12 million first phase of its planned complex on North Frontage Road. It includes eight baseball/softball fields, a multipurpose building and a playground.
“We’re going to have tournaments there, but it’s not necessarily built for tournament baseball every weekend,” he said. “As of now we’re not looking to hire it out to some outsourced provider like Oxford does.”
Hairston said over the last three years the county’s baseball and softball programs have grown by more than 230 participants.
“We were playing at Lake Lowndes, and we’ve outgrown it, so this is where we went,” Hairston said. “We’re anticipating it growing even more.”
The county has applied for a Defense Community Infrastructure Program Grant to help fund construction of Phase 2, which includes a gymnasium that can double as a storm shelter. Residents west of the Tombigbee River currently have no public storm shelters.
“We’re hoping to hear back from that at some point soon,” he said.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.