County attorney, sheriff face questions about spending

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Potential confrontations turned to cooperation Monday at the Marion County Commission as commissioners worked with elected heads of two departments to look at budgets they considered out of line with cost-cutting measures.

At the meeting a week ago, commissioners were concerned that budgets for the county attorney and sheriff were at around 97 percent with two months of the year to go. The budgets of other departments average just over 80 percent.

This followed months of commissioners asking each department to cut by 6 percent after the state reduced funding. Other income, especially from sales tax, also has been down because of the economy.

County Attorney Susan Robson said Monday, “I’ll do my best, but there are things I can’t control. We’ve had $10,000 worth of autopsies this year, and I can’t control that. There’s a bill for another one on my desk now.”

Commissioner Leroy Wetta, looking at costs especially for special prosecutors and public defenders, wondered if all the cases truly warranted the expense.

Robson said: “I don’t know how I can really put a price on justice. I don’t think there is a way to do my job by saying I’m not going to prosecute this case or that because it would be too expensive.”

She said special prosecutors have been hired in cases where she had conflicts of interest.

Commission Chair Howard Collett said, “We want you to uphold the law, and prosecute where needed. We want you to do your job.”

Commissioner Bob Hein said, in looking at costs for things such as autopsies, “We thought it was pretty high, but it is what it is.”

Wetta said: “We’re looking at this year for projections on what to do next year to help us. The cookie jar is getting empty, and we can’t keep robbing it.”

Collett found some comfort in noting that if it weren’t for the 6 percent mid-year cut, Robson might still be able to come in close to budget.

He was concerned that funds might have to be taken from a risk-management fund the commissioners formed three years ago in order to cover law enforcement deficits when issues such as closing the old landfill southwest of Marion are still to be resolved.

“All we can ask is for you to do your best,” Hein said.

When Wetta told Sheriff Lee Becker, who also is at 97 percent of budget, the same concern about projecting into 2004, Becker said he thought he had a solution if they could have a 10-minute executive session to discuss personnel.

Besides the commissioners and Becker, the executive session included officers Randal Brazil and Jeff Soyez.

Later in the session Wetta remarked that a $35,000 savings proposed during the executive session would make a big difference in the 2004 budget. No action was taken in public session.

Becker came to the session with a bar graph showing that the 2003 budget he had proposed for his office was $493,680, the budget adopted by commissioners was $452,673, and the revised amount after the 6 percent reductions later in the year was $422,498.

Becker came up with anticipated end-of-year balances for each of these totals, but Collett advised that the only figures the commissioners would be interested in would be for the reduced budget.

Becker expected deficits of $62,839 from the revised budget, $32,664 from the adopted budget and a positive balance of $8,342.94 from the proposed budget that never was adopted.

Becker said he might better plan funds by not replacing squad cars at the first of a year as has been customary, but waiting until the end to see what the budget balance is.

Sheriff’s vehicles he listed include a 1997 Ford Crown Victoria with 165,334 miles, a 1998 Ford Ranger with 130,790 miles, a 1999 Ford Crown Victoria with 148,000 miles, a 2000 Chevrolet Impala with 116,589 miles, a 2000 Chevrolet Impala with 142,862 miles, a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria with 79,500 miles, a 2001 Ford F-150 with 91,500 miles, a 2001 Ford F-150 with 52,500 miles, and a 2002 Ford Explorer with 46,842 miles.

The commissioners went over the jail budget with Becker, trying to find ways to save money in costs that rise because of an increase in the average jail inmate population.

Hein said there wasn’t much they could do about medical costs for inmates.

The commissioners commended Becker for the savings in contracting for new meal costs at a $2 reduction to $3.25.

Becker said letting an inmate wash clothes for everybody could save $200 to $300 a month, but he needed a location for a washer and dryer, and a way to overcome costs for personnel to watch the inmate.

Wetta suggested locating the washer and drier in the existing intake area where hookups could be made through existing utilities in an old kitchen area, and the intake video camera could be modified to watch the laundry activity from the communications center.

Soyez said the budget also can potentially be reduced by what appears to be a stabilization in the sheriff’s forces. No new officers to replace outgoing ones means nobody going to academy next year, and no new uniforms, he said.

Becker said the office has acquired enough uniforms from outgoing officers that officers remaining can choose from used clothing when needed.

Soyez said some counties are telling new officers they will buy them new uniforms, but if they don’t stay on the force a minimum length of time they will be required to reimburse the expense of the uniform.

Soyez said officers also are learning to alert the sheriff when they are close to overtime hours so schedule adjustments can be made.

As the meeting with the sheriff ended, Wetta said, “I’m feeling comfortable we are working in the same direction.”

Hein added, “If we work together, we can make it work.”

David Brazil, planning, zoning, sanitarian and transfer station manager, said the old cistern on the courthouse grounds where disposed medical containers were found has been cleaned up, and filled in.

The commissioners gave permission for Brazil to call Robinson Trucking of Florence to extend the transfer station transportation contract for one year, a one-time option to do without further bidding.

Brazil’s budget figures showed the transfer station will be able to reimburse the county fund $14,500 now for 10 months of employee benefits.

He said the transfer station handled 655.64 tons of waste in October. That included 614 tons of municipal waste, 30.04 tons of construction and demolition waste, 9.9 tons of white goods and 1.7 tons of tires and a total of 5,923 tons of waste for the year.

The transfer station budget was at 72 percent Oct. 31 with $362,513 of $463,220 projected already spent.

Planning and zoning was at $29,037 spent of $42,464 budgeted, or 68 percent.

Sanitation was at $29,368 of $35,959 budgeted, or 82 percent.

Michele Abbott-Becker, director of communications and emergency management, said contracting for 911 caller ID service is at a standstill while she does further research on deaf and cell phone 911 calls, and investigates other services offered.

She was working on cleanup of an oil pipeline leak in a ditch on the Morris County line.

Noreen Weems, director of the department for the elderly, said the Senior Citizens of Marion County will meet at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Peabody Senior Center. She said future uses of $935 accumulated from Flint Hills Foundation distributions of $435 last year and $500 this year, and $921 in CD interest rolled over at the Community Bank in Burns will be discussed in light of budget needs.

She reported $57,349 expended in the payroll account as of Oct. 31 with $12,410 budgeted remaining, and a checking balance of $19,071, all thanks to efforts from volunteer labor.

Department vehicles have had telephone numbers added to the sides in keeping with state requirements, she said.

The commissioners awarded a contract to provide steel for two bridges next year minus the beams for $2,714.88 from Welborn Steel of Salina.

Competing bids were $3,795 from J&J Drainage Projects of Hutchinson, and $2,932.17 from Steel and Pipe Supply of Manhattan. A bid from Salina Steel was thrown out because it was not a total bid for everything asked for.

At the Nov. 10 meeting, the Oct. 31 cash position of the county was reported at $5,073,952 including $1,471,230 in the general fund and $1,029,441 in the road and bridge fund.

The commissioners approved a plan on bond reissue for a projected total savings of $28,707, which will be spread over 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Cardie Oil of Tampa was awarded transport fuel bids totaling $9,101 over Cooperative Grain & Supply of Hillsboro at $9,306.

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