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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

County looks to trim budget

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wendell Peters and Debra Petsch of P&G Excavating, McCook, Nebraska, finish off the big apartment house at 520 Norris, making way for Red Willow County's new 24-bed jail and law enforcement center. Next to bite the dust on the empty lots will be the trees.
(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
McCOOK, Nebraska -- Red Willow County, Nebraska, commission chairman Earl McNutt said he knew the county's tax levy for 2012-13 would increase.

"But," he said during the commissioners' weekly meeting Monday morning, "I was hoping it would be 41 ... 42 cents, max."

Very early, preliminary budget figures show that the county's tax levy could be 46 cents. Add that to the levies for the other subdivisions that share the county's 50-cent tax levy, and the total levy could go above the state-mandated levy limit of 50 cents.

"That's why it doesn't work," McNutt said. "Obviously, we need to get down off of 46 cents."

"You need to be at about 40 cents," Dan Miller, the county's new budget assistant, told commissioners.

Miller told commissioners that they could cut about 3-4 cents off their levy if they just plan on transferring existing money from the county's inheritance fund instead of seeking the same amount of money in taxes. The county's inheritance fund has about $790,000 in it -- $233,500 of it "we absolutely can't touch," McNutt said. That leaves about $557,000 that the county can use as a "savings account" from which to transfer to other funds in case of an emergency or unforeseen expenditure or shortfall. The county typically transfers $250,000 to $350,000 from inheritance each year.

That's one cost-cutting option commissioners are mulling over as they wait for the county's valuation for 2012-13 from county assessor Sandra Kotschwar. Kotschwar will certify the county's valuation to the state on Monday, Aug. 20, at which time Miller will be able to determine a levy not based on last year's valuation of $762,481,461. "We're assuming the valuation will go up," Miller said.

Looking forlornly at piles of papers and endless number, McNutt said, "We're looking for areas to trim."

Miller suggested that county officials may be "overly conservative" in their income projections, although he admitted that higher income projections may not reduce the tax request "by a lot." Commissioner Steve Downer said, however, that "little amounts add up," and that the county may be able to cut even a penny from it tax levy.

Commissioners have approved a 21⁄2 percent salary increase -- $72 a month for those who work 40-hour weeks (not $70 as reported last week) and $63 a month for those who work 35 hours. Part-time employees will receive 30-cent/hour raises.

Preliminarily, the county's tax request for 2012-13 is $3.5 million.

"Dan, we'll let you work with the numbers," McNutt said.

Miller said he is still waiting on profit and loss statements, increase in assets statements and debt payment information from Hillcrest Nursing Home, the county-owned nursing home whose budget woes have compelled the county to borrow $1 million to cover payroll, bond interest, bond payments and construction costs.

It was just this type of unforeseen situation that commissioners warned taxpayers of when they asked voters to allow them to put construction bond payments for the county's new jail outside of the county's 50-cent tax levy limit.

None of them saw trouble coming at Hillcrest, commissioners said Monday morning.

Hillcrest's troubles started when the clerk who bills Medicare and Medicaid was let go in February, and bills for reimbursement for three months were not submitted or were not submitted correctly.

'Hillcrest has since refilled that position and submitted requests for reimbursement; its officials are working with the county budget assistant; and the county has borrowed $1 million to cover payroll, bond payments on a former expansion project, construction costs for the current expansion project and interest on bonds to finance the current expansion project.

Hillcrest officials are confident that revenues will repay the loan and keep the nursing home in the black on its other expenses.

The Hillcrest situation has cast a shadow of a doubt over the construction of the county's new $5.1 million, 24-bed jail and law enforcement center Right now, today, Wendell Peters and Debra Petsch are finishing up clearing lots north of the courthouse for the new jail and removing trees.

Downer said he won't let the Hillcrest cash flow situation waylay construction of the jail. "We can't get sidetracked by a one-year setback," he said.

County officials educated voters that the county's jail budget would increase with the new jail facility -- and that the increase would be seen even before the jail was built, when the county takes over the existing 96-hour holding cell facility operated now by the City of McCook's police department.

The city will get out of the jail business when its police and fire departments and administrative offices move into a new facility -- built without holding cells -- across the street east of Memorial Auditorium by the end of the year.

County Sheriff Gene Mahon told commissioners Monday that when the city police department leaves the public safety center at 11:59 p.m. on whatever day, the county takes over at 12:00:01 a.m. the next day. "When they start moving out, we'll take over," Mahon said.

Mahon is confident the transition from city to county will go well. Commissioner Vesta Dack said, "I just want a smooth transition."

City officials are tentatively figuring moving into their new digs on Dec. 1.

Mahon has already hired new jailers who are finishing training this week.

Mahon said he can't move his entire staff into the old city holding cell facility before the new jail is completed, but he will staff that facility and his existing office west of the courthouse.

Mahon's jail budget is increasing from $321,754 (actual expense in 2011-12) to $576,264 (requested for 2012-13). This second figure includes paying rent for jail bed space (approximately $230,000 for 2012-13) to Hitchcock, Frontier, Dawson and Phelps counties until the county jail is completed and ready for occupancy.

At that point, that same money should make the jail construction bond payments, Downer said. "And the operating expenses to run the old city facility won't be a lot different than the operating expenses for the new jail," he added.

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