The Ellis County Commission during a special budget work session Thursday praised the county’s department heads for again “toeing the line” in submitting their 2018 budget requests.
Pending receipt of the county’s final valuation numbers, it appears the county is in line to maintain a “constant” mill levy, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said.
“I do expect that you will be pleased with that, and the taxpayers should be pleased with that, given where we are in terms of expenditures and then the increase in oil valuations for this year,” he said. “I believe that we will be able to fund everything you have seen with a constant mill levy.”
Seven department leaders presented their budget requests to commissioners Thursday in the second of two budget work sessions.
Most departmental budgets reflected a slight increase for 2018 from this year, but a few departments actually requested less money. All departments had been asked to cut their spending in 2017.
Commissioners on Thursday heard from district court officials, who said they are working to improve a third-floor courtroom due to increased capacity. The room is functional, but needs additional amenities such as blinds and recording software, said court administrator Amanda Truan.
“There were some small things throughout the courthouse remodel that did not get finished, one of them being a courtroom on the fourth floor,” Truan said. “We’re running into increasingly more difficulty lately because of municipal court. They have increased caseload, and our caseload has increased.”
The county receives a portion of bond forfeitures processed in district court, and commissioners gave a nod to Truan’s proposal to save half of those funds for courthouse capital improvement projects to help meet those needs.
Commissioners also asked Truan and court staff to prepare a detailed cost estimate of the necessary items to complete the additional hearing space.
“This is not a want. This is a need,” Commission Chairwoman Barbara Wasinger said. “I think we can make it happen for you.”
Wage increases also have been requested by the few consulting attorneys who assist the county on a regular basis. That increase amounts to approximately $8,000, and is the result of an agreement approved by county commissioners that those contracted workers will receive a pay increase if county employees do.
It is not yet clear how employee salaries will be affected next year, as labor union negotiations are ongoing.
There also is a projected increase in 2018 for extra attorney fees. The county has needed additional help, partly due to a higher number of cases involving the termination of parental rights, Truan said. Those cases often involve several family members and can last several days.
The budget for the county coroner’s office also will show an approximately $20,000 increase for 2018, but that number is being updated to reflect the actual amount of money being spent by that department, Smith-Hanes said.
The cost increase — one of the largest in the proposed 2018 budget — largely is due to the need to contract with medical professionals to perform autopsies when needed. The other counties in the 23rd Judicial District also pay a portion of the coroner’s salary.
Final valuation numbers will be presented next month, and the commission will vote on the finalized budget in August.
Commissioners praised county employees and Smith-Hanes for their work on next year’s budget proposal and efforts to keep spending in check.
“I am deeply grateful to the department heads because they really toed the line and really are working to keep their costs down,” Wasinger said. “For the most part, this budget reflects health insurance costs. That’s the lion’s share of the budget, what has changed.”
“It’s easier to pass that message on to the taxpayers too, that we’re definitely trying to cut costs and step up to the plate and be a team player,” Commissioner Dean Haselhorst said.