By CONNIE JO DISCOE
Red Willow County commissioners plan 15-minute hearings Monday morning with all county officials, hoping they'll help cut at least $400,000 from preliminary budgets that, as they appear now, would require a levy increase to fund.
"We can't just keep raising our levy," said a blue and frustrated commission chairman Earl McNutt at the commissioners' weekly meeting Monday. "We'll reach the levy limit some day, and then what?"
Counties cannot exceed a levy limit of 50 cents per $100 of valuation. In September 2008, for the 2008-09 fiscal year, commissioners approved a $16.5 million budget and a tax levy increase from 35 to 36 cents. Using last year's valuation of $647,401,315, budget clerk Shirley Volz is tentatively projecting a tax levy for 2009-10 of almost 38 cents. The county's valuation for 2009-10 is not yet available.
Eliminating pay raises, reducing personnel and slashing budgets are the solutions commissioners are looking at to avoid dipping into the county's inheritance tax "savings account" and/or raising the levy.
Commissioner Leigh Hoyt suggested that salaries be frozen (for all but elected officials, whose salaries are determined when they're elected, and department deputies, who automatically receive 65 percent of their elected official's salary).
McNutt calculated that a 3.7 percent increase would be just short of a $100-a-month raise. A $70-a-month pay increase would create a $42,000 increase in salary costs over last year. "We were very generous last year ... " McNutt said. Commissioners authorized $.75-per-hour pay raises last year, resulting in an additional $80,000 in the budget.
Commissioners finally settled on a 21⁄2 percent raise per employee for 2009-10, basically the cost of living, McNutt said. "A person deserves some increase ... we'll see where that takes us," he said.
Hoyt also suggested that each department be reduced by one employee, an approach that many counties are being forced to take, added fellow commissioner Steve Downer. Hoyt said, "We've been preaching that for a couple years ... we're just about there."
Over the past 30 years, McNutt said, the road and bridge department -- the only budget over which commissioners have total control -- has eliminated personnel. Two of three districts had five employees not too many years ago, he said. "Now each district has three," he said. "We're running pretty thin ... "
Commissioners are pretty disgusted with "cushioning" or "padding" in proposed budgets. More than one line item in many budgets have had no activity in them for several years, yet the department head still budgets money for them.
Another problem, Volz said, is that many department heads spend what's left in their budgets at the end of the year, a practice that ultimately affects cash reserves.
McNutt said he knows that a couple departments in the courthouse are running bare-bones now, and appreciates those department heads' efforts to keep increases at a minimum. However, he added, "Many departments make no effort," to ease budget woes.
Commissioners do not have line-item veto power, but can question line items, strongly encouraging department heads to eliminate cushioning and the mentality, "but I might need this ... "
Hoyt voted against authorizing the 21⁄2 percent pay raise. "I don't know where else we're gonna make cuts ... " he said. "They all seem to justify everything in their budgets."
In other action:
* Commissioners approved the proposed expansion of the existing waste handling facilities at the Daffer Feedlot two miles west of Danbury. The proposed facilities are engineered to handle a 25-year/24-hour event, Daffer said, or a 12-inch rain. Approval of the new plan was recommended by the county's planning commission.
* Commissioners signed a 10-year labor warranty with Houlden Contracting Inc. of Cambridge for roof repairs and a new foam roof on the Bartley county shop.