Preliminary estimates suggest the Ellis County Commission will need to find a way to either increase revenue or cut spending in order to balance the 2019 budget.

If the commission chooses to slightly raise the mill levy as allowed under a state-imposed tax lid, the budget still appears to be approximately $400,000 in the red, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said. If the commission decides against a tax increase, the estimated deficit jumps to $645,000.

Smith-Hanes noted the proposed mill levy increase would be slight, approximately ⅝ of one mill. For a home valued at $100,000, that amounts to an additional $7.20 per year.

“This is not a desperate situation. Budgets are about making choices,” Smith-Hanes said. “We make choices all the time in our budgets at home, and we’re faced with some choices in the county budget for 2019. They’re not particularly pleasant choices, but we’ll get through this.”

The figures presented at Monday’s commission meeting are preliminary; insurance costs have not yet been determined. The county’s budget process continues Monday with outside agency requests, followed by special department meetings later this month.

Smith-Hanes and commissioners were quick to commend county department heads for their efforts to curb spending. Total operating expenses proposed for 2019 actually have been reduced by nearly $650,000 over this year’s spending.

“As far as I’m concerned, the departments have done a good job in keeping things in check. I think they need to be commended,” Commissioner Marcy McClelland said. “They’ve done what we asked. Now if we can do what they ask, we’ll be alright.”

The financial difficulties, rather, have been caused by rapidly increasing insurance and KPERS costs, as well as relatively flat property valuations. The county’s assessed valuation shows an expected increase of just more than 1.5 percent. Oil values are up about $3.6 million, while other personal property is down about $300,000, according to information presented Monday.

“The biggest hit” stems from a change in state law that ends the mortgage registration fee, Smith-Hanes said. That will be partially offset by an increase in interest income generated by the treasurer's office.

The county’s 2019 budget has been built around four priorities identified by the commissioners: Financial stability, increasing employee wages, constraining mill levy increases and directing additional resources to public works for long-term planning. Eliminating proposed salary adjustments for 2019 would not be enough savings to solve the problem, Smith-Hanes said.

The proposed budget for next year includes several large capital requests, including new voting equipment for elections, new emergency sirens and vehicle replacements for the sheriff’s office. It remains to be seen if all of those requests can be funded.

Possible solutions to help shore up the budget could include delaying major purchases or re-evaluating the amount of funds transferred to specific line items, such as special road and bridge projects.

The county's first special budget meeting to hear departmental requests will be June 14.

In other business:

• The county commissioners asked for an ordinance to be presented next week that would allow the use of fireworks in unincorporated areas around the July 4 holiday.

• High Plains Mental Health Center administrators presented an annual report.

• Commissioners gave approval for a captain promotion for Fire District Co. No. 6, and were informed the Insurance Services Offices rankings have improved for residents in and near Schoenchen.

• The county endorsed a memorandum of understanding for the provision of emergency services at RPM Speedway.

• The commission endorsed a letter of support for tax credits sought by DSNWK.