McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County, Nebraska, commissioners shaved $180,000 from the county's roads and bridges budget Monday morning in an attempt to maintain a 39-cent tax levy, removing $160,000 they'd budgeted for a bridge that they've decided now to finance over three years.
Commission Chairman Earl McNutt said during the commissioners' weekly meeting Monday morning that borrowing money to build the new bridge -- over Red Willow Creek north of the former Republican Valley junior/senior high school between McCook and Indianola -- "is a no-brainer." Fellow commissioner Steve Downer said interest rates are good, with a rate of 1.2 percent on the bridge loan.
Commissioners left $5,000 in the bridge line item of the road/bridge budget, which could be used to make a first interest payment. The first payment on the loan would be due in 2012.
Commissioners will take bids for the bridge Monday, Sept. 12, and are expecting it to cost between $160,000 and $170,000.
Removing the $160,000 bridge and making other cuts amounting to another $20,000 from the road and bridge budget will help commissioners come up with the approximately $158,000 they need to cut from the proposed 2011-2012 budget to keep the tax levy at 39 cents (per $100 of valuation).
A very preliminary budget that requests about $3.1 million in tax dollars would require a tax levy of nearly 41 cents, budget clerk Shirley Volz told commissioners Monday morning.
"No positive gains in the inheritance tax forces us to take drastic steps," McNutt said. "Just like always, we're struggling to make ends meet. One of the biggest items is no growth in the inheritance tax, which we use to help balance the budget. Not as much is available."
Another major stumbling block, a huge challenge, McNutt said, is continually rising health insurance costs. "It's a no-win item that's not going to go away," he said.
McNutt said he and fellow commissioners Steve Downer and Vesta Dack asked Volz to help develop a budget that operates with a 39-cent tax levy (as it was in 2010-2011) as she works with budgets turned in by elected officials. "We're doing all we can to do that," McNutt said.
McNutt said that proposed budgets "are as tight as can be," adding that those offices and departments that traditionally have big expenditures -- road and bridge, the sheriff's department, the county fair -- came in with "no huge increases" over last year. "Our officials are trying to remain conservative," McNutt said.
Commissioners had asked elected officials to work with a tentative proposal for raises, calculating them at the same rate as last year: $50 a month for 40-hour-work week employees; $43.75 for 35-hour-work week employees; and 30 cents/hour for part-time employees.
Proposed increases in salaries would amount to $38,000.
Downer said that the total valuation of the county has increased by $47 million, but the county's share of that, calculating a 39-cent tax, is only $183,000. Downer said, "The county treasurer will handle a lot more money, but the county just won't get much." McNutt said that considering all the other tax-asking entities, especially school districts, "the county doesn't get a lot."
County health department director Darcey Hansen cut her office equipment and furniture line in half, from $2,000 to $1,000, to increase the salary of a part-time nurse from $8,320 to $9,000.
The nurse's salary is based on 450 hours per year at $20 an hour, a figure Hansen said is lower than salaries for hospital nurses but is in line with salaries for nurses at immunization clinics. The part-time nurse is paid for actual hours worked, Hansen said.
The raise that Hansen proposes is from $18.49 per hour to $20 an hour.
This nurse works "whenever we need her," Hansen said. "She has served Red Willow County for many years. She is a valuable asset. I want to keep her."
Hansen said she wants to pay the nurse a salary in line with her years of experience and her level of expertise. Her salary is not higher than other nurses in similar jobs, Hansen said.
Hansen said she will make cuts in other areas of her budget to justify the nurse's raise, saying that although her office is "somewhat old-fashioned," she is willing to cut her office furniture line in half. She also said that rather than replace computers that are "getting some age," she is adding more and more updates and memory to existing computers.
Hansen also denied rumors that employees are paid mileage to come to work. She also said that her office documents mileage "very carefully," and that, contrary to a rumor mentioned by McNutt, her county health department mileage is never combined with her work as TeamMates coordinator for McCook Public Schools.
Following the budget hearing with Hansen via telephone, commissioners said that Hansen has "always budgeted more than she's spent," pointing out that for the part-time nurse in 2010-2011, she budgeted $8,320 and spent $5,542.70. In 2008-2009, she spent $4,750.48; in 2009-2010, she spent $4,910.90.
While commissioners did not nix an increase in a health department nurse's salary, they did deny a $2,934 raise proposed by the veterans service committee for the county's veterans service officer.
VSO Tom Stritt told commissioners repeatedly that the budget he submitted was the proposal of his committee, that committee members feel he is "going above and beyond for Red Willow County and its dollar," and that he is bringing money into the county with the benefits he gets for veterans.
Stritt's budget indicates a raise in his salary from $30,066 to $33,000, a salary he says is in line with other counties with similar veteran populations. It is also a figure that "the committee thought should be more," Stritt said.
Commissioners had proposed a raise for of $600 a year for 40-hour-work-week employees, a figure that McNutt noted elected officials adhered to closely this year.
McNutt admitted that Red Willow County's salaries are historically lower in comparison to some other counties, but he reminded Stritt of the county's benefit package, which is very good in comparison to the same other counties.
McNutt said, "Our request was a $600 increase," to which Stritt replied, "Then you tell my committee, and they'll probably go with that. But my committee strongly, strongly recommended that (amount of raise)."
Downer told Stritt, "We're strongly, strongly recommending that $600."
McNutt said, "All of the other departments are following our recommendation to a T. I'll echo Steve's feeling. We (have to) follow our guidelines for everyone."
Stritt said, "It was the prerogative of my board to ask for this."
Dack told Stritt that while the county appreciates his service and his going beyond the specific duties of the office, and despite his committee's conviction that he deserve the raise, "each county head is in the same position." Denying the raise "doesn't reflect on the job done," Dack said, but is an attempt "to be fair to all."
McNutt said, "We try to be as consistent as possible."
Stritt said that the benefits that veterans receive mean money for Red Willow County, which ultimately includes even the benefits that he gets for veterans with whom he also works who live outside of Red Willow County, such as in Oberlin and Cambridge. "Red Willow County receives the benefit," Stritt said.
McNutt said that over the years, Southwest Nebraska counties have shown no interest in consolidating veterans service offices. "We told him (Stritt) then to work only with Red Willow County veterans," McNutt said.
Commissioners approved Stritt's budget with a $600 raise for him, increasing his salary from $30,066 in 2010-2011 to $30,666 for 2011-2012, and adjusting his total budget from $51,150 to $48,216.
At the recommendation of county clerk and election commissioner Pauletta Gerver, commissioners supported these consolidations in voting districts within the county:
* Willow voting district (which includes rural voters west of Indianola and in Indianola who vote at St. Catherine's Catholic Church), with the Indianola voting district, whose voters cast their ballots at the Methodist Church. Gerver said 2011 legislation allows voting districts of up to 1,000 voters. A combined Willow and Indianola voting district would have 339 voters.
* Ward 4 Precinct 1, whose voters vote at the Congregational Church in McCook, and Ward 4 Precinct 2, whose voters vote at Frenchman Valley Co-Op, all of whom will now vote at Evangelical Free Church. The new district would have 334 voters.
Gerver said she tries to find polling places whose size is comfortable for poll workers, voters, voting booths and equipment, with sufficient parking and handicap accessibility.
Gerver said she heard very few comments on the changes -- several were in favor of them, while another said it wouldn't make any difference. One voter came to the commissioners' meeting to voice her support of the change in the McCook locations.
Commissioners supported the changes, seeing them as efforts to streamline the voting process and save election costs for the county. Gerver said the changes mean 10 polling place workers instead of 20.
Commissioners will meet Monday, Aug. 29, despite it being a fifth Monday, on which commissioners normally do not meet. This is to accommodate the schedule of the Hillcrest Nursing Home board of trustees as they accept construction bids for nursing home improvements funded in part with a federal energy efficiency and conservation block grant.