County facing major budget reductions

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
It was a somber group of department heads that filled the meeting room of the Marion County Commission toward the end of Friday’s pay-day meeting.

And who could blame them? Commissioners had called them in to deliver some pretty sobering news: the county can expect a shortfall in the 2003 budget of $336,325, and probably see another one at least as big in 2004.

“We’re all in the same boat-and there’s a hole in it,” Commission Chairman Howard Collett told the 14 department heads attending. “We know we’re going to have to tighten our belts, but we need your help.”

The cause of the shortfall is primarily three-fold, commissioners said.

First and foremost, legislators in Topeka reduced funding to counties and cities as a way to manage their own projected revenue shortfall at the state level.

Second, county revenue from sales tax could be down around 5 percent from a year ago. Earlier in the meeting, County Clerk Carol Maggard had reported receipts of $36,265 in March 2003-down from receipts of $40,966 in March 2002. After the first five months of this year, the county is already behind $10,728 from a year ago.

Third, the cost of health insurance for county employees has increased by 15 percent-which is actually far less than the 45 percent increase which would have occurred if commissioners had not adjusted the county’s plan.

Collett said when budget cutting is required, it’s natural for departments to protect their own turf. He said he and his two colleagues hoped that won’t happen here.

“We certainly don’t want to be adversarial about this,” Collett said. “We need to find a way to work together.”

Commissioner Leroy Wetta said the primary strategy must be cutting expenses.

“The last thing I would propose and want is an increase in the mill levy,” Wetta said.

Collett said for the county to make up the shortfall purely in additional tax revenue would require an increase of four mills-and that simply can’t happen, he said.

He said it already appears the county is raising taxes when it actually is the collecting agent on behalf of other entities that have raised their levies, like hospitals, schools and cities.

“We’re the whipping boy for the people who squawk, even though we’re not causing much of it,” Collett said.

As a tool for budget reduction, Wetta asked each county department to create separate budgets for 2004 showing where cuts would be made if each department had to reduce its own spending by 3 percent, 6 percent and 10 percent.

“Ten percent (reductions) will look ridiculous for some budgets,” he said. “I don’t really think we have that kind of money to spare. But somewhere we have to know what could come out…. Are we doing things that are nice, but aren’t required?”

Several department heads indicated it would be tough to cut budgets that are already lean.

“I will watch the things I can control, but I think it’s hard to think we can absorb $300,000 every year without raising the mill levy,” said County Attorney Susan Robson.

“We’re going to have an increase (in the mill levy),” Collett said a little later in the discussion.

Robson added that it wasn’t right for the state to pass on the burden of budget-tightening to other levels of government.

“If they would do their job in Topeka, we wouldn’t have to do it here,” she said.

Where cuts will be made in the 2003 budget was the more pressing concern, but few substantive strategies were suggested.

“For this year, we’re just alerting you it’s going to be tough to get any major expenditures approved,” Collett said.

As for 2004, Wetta said, “Anything that can be cut this year will make next year less painful. The more you can help us, the less we’ll be tearing the heck out of things.”

In other business, commissioners discussed roofing needs on the court house and bell tower. An attempt to fix leaks in the roof in 1966 “was a very poor job.”

“We’re losing ceiling tiles constantly from leakage,” Maggard said.

Commission accepted a proposal from Flory Roofing & Construction of Newton to fix the problem for $3,480-or for less if a more economical strategy does the job.

The commissioners accepted one transportation fuel bid from Cardie Oil of Tampa for a total of $8,620 for 8,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel, and accepted bids totaling $5,679 from Cooperative Grain & Supply for 6,500 gallons of fuel.

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