County commissioners wrestle with budget issues

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Budget number crunching turned to hardball Monday at the Marion County Commission meeting with cuts suggested of one sheriff’s deputy and squad car, one bridge that was to be built, one road-and-bridge section hand, and one position in the treasurer’s office.

Those cuts could save the county $190,000, commissioners estimated, close to the equivalent of two mills that they must cut to avoid raising property taxes for the county to beyond the more than 51 mills they are at.

As if to emphasize the need for the commissioners to economize, County Clerk Carol Maggard announced that May sales tax collections, received in July totalled $36,041.67 compared to $42,394.58 during the same time a year ago, down $18,002.32 this year for a total $253,102.48 collected so far.

The falling sales-tax figures plus even larger shortfalls in funds formerly promised by the state that won’t be coming due to state budget problems, are blamed for the county budget problems that must be resolved in a 2004 budget by the first week of August.

Commission Chairman Howard Collett explained that commissioners feel they must resolve the problem for the future, and get by the rest of 2003, without mill levy increases for the sake of the citizens and to keep the county competitive in business.

He said businesses can look at county mill-levy totals in the 30’s in nearby Butler and Sedgwick Counties not realizing that road and bridge functions are spread among the townships there while, in Marion County, all road and bridge spending is centralized. He said it has been that way since 1948 when, in the equipment shortages following World War II, the townships needed the county to take over.

The county general fund and road and bridge fund, because they carry the largest money balances, have come under scrutiny in the many budget study sessions commissioners have had recently with Scot Lloyd, accounting consultant with the McPherson firm of Janzen, Hawk & Lloyd, LLC.

Lloyd continued going over the numbers Monday with commissioners trying to cut six percent across the board.

Efforts to cut the employee benefit fund three percent slowed when Commissioner Leroy Wetta pointed out that the expected annual carryover of about $94,000 is needed to avoid any shortfalls in meeting contingencies such as continued health insurance increases.

“We don’t want to run ourselves short,” he said. The commissioners and Lloyd shared rumors about other counties where the same pressures may be resulting in much larger department cutbacks and desperate measures to keep from running out of funds before the end of the year.

The commissioners repeated that the public needs to understand that the solid waste transfer station stands on its own with its own budget and income, and is not to be borrowed from to help other county budgeting.

The commissioners had agreed that continuing the road surfacing program that has begun is necessary to keep road quality from deteriorating, but Collett interjected that they also agreed “that we need to cut out a bridge” for an approximate savings of $70,000.

The bridge is part of an “aggressive” program of bridge replacement the county has had in place that will actually be only delayed until another year.

Then Commissioner Bob Hein said, “I think the sheriff’s office can get by with one less deputy and squad car. You’re looking at $50,000 there.”

The other two commissioners agreed.

Wetta said said the treasurer’s office seemed “long on help” at the moment, and eliminating one position there would save probably $35,000.

With the other commissioners’ agreement, he extended the proposal to also eliminate “a section guy” for another approximate $35,000.

Collett said the $35,000 is a “round figure” for what an average employee costs the county in wages and benefits.

Lloyd said, with those deletions, he will be ready to finalize the budget with commissioners at the payday meeting Thursday after getting further input from Jonathan Small, Topeka bond attorney, on the mechanics of paying bonds off early to save further money.

The commissioners approved increases in ambulance rates to become effective August 1.

They approved fees for caller ID for 911 dispatchers and an Internet use policy for county employees.

Maggard said electrical surges have been hard on courthouse equipment, but from an inquiry with the City of Marion electrical provider, she was told the problem is with Westar power coming into the city.

Mike Olson, road and bridge consultant with the firm of Kirkham Michael of Salina, said cracking and deterioration of some county roads is due to ground moisture coming up, and that vertical trenches filled with gravel to the road bridge should help with improved drainage.

Gerald Kelsey, road and bridge supervisor, and Olson said a layer of chip and seal on the new hard surface into Tampa is planned to slow deterioration there that was aggravated by heavy grain-truck traffic, and a polymer seal will suffice on many of the newer blacktops in the county for the immediate future.

The two men said public understanding is needed that for future solid hard surface roads, time is needed to spread materials, blade and roll them in to develop a good bed first.

Mike Wederski of the Juvenile Justice Authority said an increase of $50,000 from the state for help with adult cases will be used in financing mental health needs from agencies such as Prairie View.

The commissioners joined other member counties in approving the 2004 JJA budget.

The commissioners approved a noxious weed department bid from Ag Service at Hillsboro for $8.88 a gallon on 180 gallons of 2,4-D amine totalling $1,598.40 over a bid from Markley Service of $9.00 a gallon totalling $1,620.00.

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