County Holds Budget Hearing

A dramatic increase in the amount of “unreserved funds” that might be carried over from the 2016 budget drew many comments from Saline County Commissioners, hopeful Commission candidates, and the public at Tuesday’s 2017 budget hearing.

At the televised hour long public hearing, Republican nominee from the Second Commission District, Robert Vidrickson asked that the 2016 Commission “not decrease the mill levy” for 2017.  Chairman Monte Shadwick, whose term will continue through 2018, said “no one likes taxes, but we have to fund government somehow.”  Shadwick said he’d “be prudent with using tax dollars going forward” in the same way he’d been prudent in the eight years he’s served in City and County Commissions.

In the morning’s study session, Republican nominee from the Fourth Commission District, James Weese said he’d hate to see the present Commissioners “tie the hands of new Commissioners”.  Commissioner John Price said he would trust the individuals elected to serve in the 2017 Commission.

Tuesday’s conversation was a contrast from discussions a day before when Commissioners assembled to canvass votes from the August primary election.  Smith, Price and Commissioner Jim Gile expressed interest in reducing the mill levy beyond the one mill that Commissioners had built into the budget when they met in July to continue planning the 2017 budget.

David Norlin told Commissioners that leaving the mill levy as is would allow the 2017 Commission to undertake projects for the “constituents good”.

Details of the proposed budget are outlined in a Saline County 2017 Budget Overview; the second version of the overview was identified as a “draft” and reflected clarifications from a version first supplied by County Administrator Rita Deister.  The public hearing can be viewed on ACCESS TV.

Commissioners will vote on the 2017 budget at the August 15th meeting.  Chairman Monte Shadwick encouraged the public to contact Commissioners with their input.

2017 Budget Details

As outlined in the latest version of the Saline County 2017 Budget Overview, “unreserved funds” (also known as the beginning fund balance) for 2017 could be as high as $11,062,236.  This is a 32% increase above the $7,536,400 fund balance that Commissioners had to start 2016.

Prior to the August primary, the sitting commission planned to reduce property taxes by one mill and set aside additional revenues in a stabilization fund and capital improvement fund.

During the study session, Deister began the budget discussions with a disclaimer . . . “that budgets are more of an art than a science”.  She said that because of State requirements, the County’s budget is viewed as its “spending authority” for the fiscal year.  Businesses are able to amend their budgets at will, but statutes require that the County define both its “budget authority” and “spending authority” in advance.  She said that if the capital improvement fund budget estimate is set too high, the County might have budget authority to make certain improvements, but not have the spending authority.  If the estimate is set too low, the County may not have the needed spending authority.

Deister reviewed that Commissioners already approved funding for projects that may or may not be completed during the current fiscal year.  The Special Bridge fund has $1.39 million in such projects, Noxious Weed has $37,869; Expo Center has $107,865, County Capital Improvement has $3,130,747 and the Health Department has $126,555.

Deister also noted that the County collected $558,984 in delinquent taxes from 2015 that had not been anticipated in the 2016 budget.  The Ad Valorem (property taxes) yielded $101,468 above estimates and sales taxes added $617,634 and the Expo Center generated an additional $54,824 in revenues above earlier estimates.

Price noted that Deister “does a good job of being tight” with the County’s funds and that he’d be glad to “be giving a mill back” to property owners.  He noted that he wanted things to be easier for the incoming Commission.  He said that the only debt the County had was for air conditioning units on the City-County Building and for some of the trucks purchased by rural fire departments.  He said Saline County “was pretty fortunate . . . . not to have much debt”.

Republican nominee for District 3, Rodger Sparks said his “concern is the roads”.  While campaigning, he’d spoke to some individuals who might prefer to “keep taxes where they are at” in order to “get the roads built back up”.  Price commented that the Commission had authorized $500,000 to be spent in additional gravel in 2016.  Sparks commented that there are “lots of miles of roads” and that many ditches have become filled with gravel and would need to be cleaned out.

Steve Bloomberg noted that water often sits on the road ways.  Bloomberg recalled past plans when the Commission hoped to “rebuild three miles of road” each year.  Gile said the County has 720 miles of roads.  Price noted that the “expensive part is the cost of raising the road a foot”, in comparison to paving the roads.  Smith said Bloomberg had raised an “important point”.  Deister responded that Road and Bridge staff would be “thrilled” if they had an opportunity to rebuild roads.  Smith responded that the Commission had “focused on bridges and boxes and had neglected roads”.

Smith also noted that “historically, the Commission had butted heads with the Sheriff” and he’d like to see more mutual agreement between the two groups on what might be budgeted for contract housing of inmates outside the county and related expenses.

Smith also wanted to address pay issues involving corrections officers and truck drivers.  Price said that if the County is “going to fix roads, we need truck drivers”.  Although the County currently pays newly hired driver $11.99/hour, Price noted that the prevailing wage is $14.00/hour.  Price also advocated for raising wages for registered nurses.

Price said he felt the Commission had “been real fair to employees”, noting that the Commission had approved raises in three of the past four years.  Gile said, “I don’t know who gets a raise every year in private enterprise.”  The 2017 Budget Overview outlined plans to give employees a $750 step increase.  This translates into a $0.36/hour increase.  Earlier, the Commission funded an Archer salary study that recommended that staff receive a $1.33/hour increase.

During the Open Forum, Patrick Harrington spoke of how a convenience store chain recently gave all employees a “$1.25/hour increase”.  He reminded Commissioners of the Fair Trade Store on Santa Fe that reflected a global effort to get fair prices and dignity for workers.  He asked that Commissioners value their workers fairly.

Suzane Myers, who has represented staff interests in one of the County’s two bargaining units, said that the Sheriff’s Office’s employees are underpaid.  She said that if the County were to pay the equivalent of the $1.33/hour increase as recommended in the salary survey, that it would make the difference in employees being able to put braces on a child, or help a family member buy a car that they might need for work, or be able to travel to a funeral of a distant relative.  She said, “Employees desperately need the increase.”  She encouraged Commissioners to poll employees to see how many work additional jobs to support their families.

When it comes to reducing the mill levy, Myers said the “public doesn’t truly understand the problem”.  She added the State has exempted many entities from having to pay property taxes.

Prior to 2016, the last salary survey was completed in 2005.  Prior to that, a 1999 Commission wanted to salaries studied every three years.  But, tough economic times intervened.

Myers said employees understood when the County could not fund salary surveys as planned.  She said, “Employees have patiently waited for the study to come out.  They put faith in the Commission that they would do the right thing by the employees.”  She noted that if the Commission didn’t take additional action this year, this might be a “deterrent to individuals applying to work with the County” or it might prompt others “to work elsewhere”.  Myers took issue with a statement in the Budget Overview that said “long-term employees have generous retirement and benefits that offset shortfalls in salaries”.  She noted that new employees earn the same retirement and benefits.  She urged Commissioners not to “get so far behind” that they can’t make up salary discrepancies.

Other Business

Commissioners decided to table an amendment to Resolution #1254, relating to the County’s Home Occupation Code.  David Neal, Planning and Zoning Director, brought forth amendments from the Planning Commission that would allow for a broader range of home businesses that operate in rural areas.  Shadwick asked for an opportunity to meet with the Planning Commission in a special meeting to discuss Commissioners concerns.

County Counselor Mike Montoya shared language for a “request for proposal” for the Commission to see if other entities wished to secure oil and gas rights to the Oliver Haag property the County owns.  One company has approached the Commission about the possibility of securing a three year lease for approximately 400 acres, at $10/acre.  Price speculated that “Oliver Haag would like” for the County to be able to offer “another scholarship” as a result of leasing this land.  Montoya said Commissioners could decide not to proceed with leasing these rights after advertising the RFP.

Montoya also alerted Commissioners of conversations he’d had with a utility company.  The company denied that they were responsible for damages done to Water Well Road, saying they had remedied the situation and that they’d received approval from the County Engineer, who said he was not consulted.  Montoya said he needed to proceed in an attempt to collect $30,000 in damages Montoya feels the County is still owed.

County Clerk Don Merriman presented a formal proposal to vacate the right-of-way for a segment of Coronado Heights Road.  The road serves as the boundary for Saline and McPherson Counties.  Steve Bloomberg, whose property is located in McPherson said he and Ronald Heimer would likely put a gate across a concrete structure that crosses Pee Wee Creek; this structure was a bridge the County has since closed.  Bloomberg said he and Heimer would allow utilities who had pipelines or cable running across the road to have access, as well as the rural fire department.  AT&T responded to the notice of vacation that they’d received from Merriman and said that they “needed to retain the right of way”.  Bloomberg said that there were “no plans to farm the road” and that those who had easements would still have access.  Merriman said he’d publish notice of the proposed right-of-way vacation; the matter might come to the Commission for a vote in one or two weeks.

Computer Technology Director Brad Bowers asked Commissioners to approve a request to place 18 mobile data terminals, used by Sheriff Deputies as they patrol the County.  The terminals allow the officers to contact dispatch, write reports, run driver’s license queries, and write citations.  Many of the “digi-ticket” machines are no longer operable or repairable.  The Sheriff’s Office budgeted $31,500 for this.  Commissioners will vote on the matter next week.