Changing needs of court systems and law enforcement dominated much of the Ellis County Commission’s 2019 budget planning session Thursday morning.

Preliminary financial estimates indicated the county could be facing a deficit of up to $600,000 in setting the 2019 budget, especially if the commission decides against a slight mill levy increase. County commissioner Barbara Wasinger said Thursday she would vote against against any tax increase.

“I think that with a budget in the millions of dollars such as we have, there should be a way we could cut our budget down to fit and not raise the mill levy, be fiscally responsible. I think we can do that easily,” Wasinger said prior to hearing department budget requests. “I will not vote for an increase in any mill levy.”

Next year’s insurance rates also have come in less than anticipated, which could improve the county’s financial outlook for the coming year when those numbers are updated, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said.

Total proposed operating expenses for 2019 already have been reduced by nearly $650,000 over this year’s spending, and several departments presenting their requests Thursday did not seek significant increases.

The Ellis County Attorney’s office is seeking a total increase of $38,000 — $29,000 of which would be used to help bring salaries up to a more competitive rate for assistant prosecutors, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said. Most of the other proposed budget changes in that department are related to employee benefits.

Drees said hiring and retaining employees has been a challenge with prosecutors’ salaries below wages offered by the state attorney general’s office and some other Kansas counties. The salary mid-range in the county office is $62,000.

“We’ve just fallen behind. We’ve held the line on budget, held the line on budget, and that’s a good thing, but we also have to be fair to our employees,” Drees said. “We also have to understand it takes a lot of manpower and a lot of resources to be continually training new assistants, to have them then take jobs in larger counties and leave and get paid a higher salary. We need to be competitive and be fair to our employees and provide them an appropriate range of compensation.”

Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin said his budget actually will see an anticipated decrease of $145,000 due to a reduced need to house inmates outside of the county jail. The department has worked with district court and the county attorney’s office to keep some minor offenders out of jail, and the Hays Police Department recently changed a policy to write tickets for certain minor infractions instead of jail time, Harbin said.

The jail census now hovers around 50 inmates, compared to approximately 70 or 80 in the past.

“One of our biggest expenses has been the jail. With the help of the county attorney’s office, district court and court services and Community Corrections, we’ve been able to try to keep some people out of jail that would normally be in jail,” Harbin said.

District court officials reported their caseload continues to increase, with an average of 700 hearings each month. Ellis County has the third highest caseload per judge in the state of Kansas, said court administrator Amanda Truan. The courts are asking for funding to improve the jury assembly room so it could better function as a courtroom if needed to increase capacity.

Court officials also are working to establish a new drug program that would more effectively serve residents who are suspected of using drugs, without the intent to sell or more serious charges. The program would be matched by grant funding, with a budget request of $30,000 from Ellis County next year.

“There are now 3,000 drug courts in the United States. They serve on an annual basis about 150,000 people and the statistics show that 75 percent of people that graduate drug court stay drug-free and don’t come back into the system,” said Judge Glenn Braun. “Unfortunately, under our current program, we have a high rate of recidivism. That’s one of the reasons drug courts were instituted.”

An estimated 65 percent of inmates nationally have a substance abuse problem, and Kansas prisons are currently about 150 people over capacity and that number grows every year, Braun said. In Ellis County, it costs approximately $24,500 to house one inmate for a year.

“If we can keep one Ellis County defendant out of prison, it will pay for the request that we’re making for you today of $30,000,” he said. “We believe that the benefit to our local community and to the court system will be tremendous if we can get this up and running.”