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County officials looking for $400,000 in savings

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One commissioner admitted he was ... "a Scrooge" ... Another apologized for "being so picky." But as Red Willow County Commission Chairman Earl McNutt reminded elected officials and department heads Monday morning, "the bottom line is" that commissioners need to slash $400,000 from budgets proposed for 2009-10, take that amount out of the county's inheritance "savings account" fund, or raise taxes.

County officials have control over only the bottom line of each official's budget, but during budget hearings Monday, commissioners perused county officials' budgets, line-by-line, and made helpful suggestions regarding expenditures they think can be -- or should be -- reduced.

All of the six elected officials or department heads whose hearings were conducted Monday had re-examined their initial budgets and refigured salaries using the 21⁄2 percent pay increase authorized last week by commissioners. Some had looked even closer and had come up with additional cuts, or were agreeable to cuts suggested by commissioners Leigh Hoyt, Steve Downer and McNutt. Several, however, defended certain line items within their budgets, explaining that what appears to be "cushioning" is what they see as protection against unexpected emergency expenses.

"There are a lot of unknowns out there," said fair board secretary Deb Lafferty, admitting that she estimates budget expenditures for the fairgrounds operating, Kiplinger Arena and fair sinking fund budgets "on the high side," adding, "It's worse to run out of money."

Lafferty made cuts in custodial / part-time, overtime / holiday pay, water, liability insurance, convention / workshop, miscellaneous and machinery / equipment.

Lafferty said the fair board intends to spend $28,500 on bleachers, windows, carpet and work on the Ag Complex foundation, estimated at $28,500. The board expects to pay $39,000 for a spray-foam roof on the Ag Complex.

The fair board also wants to build a shop on the fairgrounds, for which $25,000 was allocated in last year's budget, but the shop was not built. Hoyt suggested putting off the shop for another year, in exchange for the roof repairs on the Ag Complex this year. "There's no way around the roof on the Ag Complex. It has to be repaired," McNutt said.

Lafferty said she would have to ask fair board members about waiting on the shop another year, suggesting also that fair board members may look into building the shop using a lease / purchase arrangement and paying for it over two years.

Commissioners would not approve the fair board budget until Lafferty has a chance to visit with each fair board member about waiting on the shop construction.

Because the Kiplinger Arena is self-supporting and requires no tax money for day-to-day operations, McNutt said, commissioners changed little in its budget, other than suggesting the creation of specifically-named line items instead of using a a fund labeled "Miscellaneous."

There is $5,735 in the fair sinking fund, whose funds are now earmarked for the eventual remodeling of the grandstand restrooms.

Trying to offset an $11,000 increase in dispatching costs for 2009-10, Red Willow County Sheriff Gene Mahon and commissioners made cuts in salaries (refigured to comply with the 21⁄2 percent pay raises); part-time deputies; operating expenses (telephone service, insurance settlement, radio and car repair, and miscellaneous); supplies and materials (machinery/ equipment fuel, machinery/ equipment tires); and capital outlay (radio equipment, office equipment, technical equipment such as radar, breathalyzers and in-car cameras).

Commissioners did not cut a $4,000 expenditure earmarked for seven new bullet-proof vests (which must be replaced every five years).

The county jail budget showed cuts in correctional jailer fees, lodging and safekeeping of prisoners.

The emergency manager's budget was increased only by the 21⁄2 percent raises authorized by commissioners. It includes a $7,250 expenditure for the county's share of a hazard mitigation plan that is being written in conjunction with the City of McCook and will be completed in 2010.

Beverly Dodge, clerk of the district court, explained to commissioners that one computer and one fax machine need to be replaced in her office, but still cut agreed to cut $500 from the $4,000 that she expected to spend for the new equipment. She said she tried to make her budget "as bare-bones as possible."

Dodge's total budget proposed for 2009-10, $88,369 -- with pay increases -- came in less than her 2008-2009 budget of $88,688, an effort that did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by commissioners.

Dodge said that 33 percent of the district judge's budget of about $11,350 is paid by Red Willow County; the remainder is shared by the other eight counties that he serves. Dodge cut $500, from $6,000 to $5,500, from a line item earmarked for office renovation / office equipment and furniture (a new computer and printer).

Another budget that impressed commissioners was that prepared by Margaret Swanda, director of the county health department.

Swanda explained that Internet services have increased from $800 to $2,000, mainly to accommodate an immunization data base and registry updates. Other increases were in clinic / lab expenses and medical / hospital supplies. She made cuts in printing and publishing, mileage allowance, dues / training, conventions / workshops, other operating expense / health planning, office supplies, stationary and office equipment / furniture.

"And she brings back $63,000 to start the new year," Hoyt said.

Commissioners -- every year -- bemoan department heads who spend their budgets down to or almost to the last penny, leaving little or nothing in a cash reserve to start the next year.

County Clerk Pauletta Gerver prepared a budget that increased just $504 over last year, from $144,428 to $144,932, even with pay increases. She showed cuts in postage, telephone service, employee bonds, conventions / workshops, miscellaneous, office supplies, machinery / equipment fuel, equipment rental (postal meter), office equipment / furniture and data processing equipment / software.

Gerver's budget as election commissioner shows a reduction from $27,825 to $26,075. One line item for election part-time salaries reflects the mandatory increase in minimum wage.

Cuts in the election commissioner budget are shown in postal services, telephone service, printing / publishing, consulting fees, voting supplies and voting equipment (voting booths).

Greg Holthus's proposed budget shows a 3 percent increase in wages, rather than the authorized 2 1 / 2 percent increase, because of a shortage in his salary last year created by a mathematical error.

Holthus said that expenditures such as lights, water and heating fuels are difficult to predict because they depend so much upon the weather. Commissioners cut the projected light bill from $14,000 to $12,500, based on past usage in the $10,000 to $11,000 range; and cut a projected raise in heating fuels from $12,000 to $13,000 back to $12,000 because the county has locked in its per-therm cost.

A figure of $40,000 in "building repair" is earmarked for the county court office renovation and treasurer's office countertops. Another "courthouse remodeling" line item of $7,750 increased from $5,000 budgeted in 2008-2009.

Holthus showed cuts in other equipment repair, snow removal equipment and office equipment / furniture.

Downer said that there is "plenty of cushion there" in Holthus's 2008-2009 budget of $119,192, of which only $72,219 was actually spent. Hoyt told Holthus that he wants proposed expenses to be closer to actual expenditures from the previous year.

Commissioners will conduct hearings for noxious weed control, county treasurer, county assessor, county attorney, surveyor and veterans' service officer at their weekly meeting Monday.

During budget hearings Monday, McNutt said, "I hate to be so picky ... " Hoyt said, "I'm sorry to be such a Scrooge." But neither McNutt or Hoyt, or fellow commissioner Steve Downer apologized for watching the bottom line -- the amount of money that will be requested from tax payers.

The county operates mainly with tax money, McNutt has said, bemoaning the fact that the City of McCook declined to share a portion of its latest sales tax with the city. The county would have used those funds to help fund roads maintenance, reducing the county's reliance on property taxes.

During budget workshops thus far, Hoyt suggested a salary freeze. McNutt is considering a hiring freeze.

Budgets must be finalized and approved, and reported to the state by late September.

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I want to know how they can justify raising taxes when they re-evaluated home prices and raised almost every one in the county over 10% with more than 15%? Our property taxes increased over $700 this year. Isn't that enough increase? Where am I going to come up with that when my employer isn't giving out raises?

-- Posted by Rural Citizen on Tue, Aug 11, 2009, at 1:07 PM

It is time for our conservative commissioners to say sorry, no raises this year!

If the people on social security do not get a cost of living raise this year, sorry employees you'll have to wait until next year.

I still say that almost all of the employees would say they would rather keep their job than get a raise, if they were given the choice.

-- Posted by goarmy67 on Tue, Aug 11, 2009, at 7:03 PM

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