Ellis County commissioners sent the 2019 budget back to department directors with directions to cut 1 percent from their requests in hopes of putting a stop to what commissioners called a trend of spending more money than the county brings in.

Commissioner Barb Wasinger noted the proposed operating budget lists expenditures of more than $2 million over the budgeted revenue. Commisioners said it was a trend over the last several years, and that needs to be changed.

“We just can’t do this. You can’t do this with your household budget and you just can’t raise the mill levy to cover the fact we’re spending more than we’re bringing in,” she said.

Wasinger said she realized it might not be possible to eliminate that $2 million difference without “decimating” departments, but suggested some cuts to reduce the amount.

“I hate to pick on public works, but why are we operating 12 graders?” she asked. “Could we go down to 11?”

County Administrator Phil Smith-Hanes said the county has 15 road graders that work 12 routes. Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst also suggested reducing the number of graders and also using equipment longer.

“Do we have to buy a new dump truck just because the motor goes out?” he said.

Smith-Hanes said reducing equipment purchases will not affect the department’s operating budget, however.

“This is the conversation we had last week. Equipment is different from operations. Just getting rid of a grader will not save you operating costs,” he said.

Items such as staffing and fuel are included in the department’s operating costs, he said.

A hiring freeze was discussed, but Commissioner Marcy McClellan said that would not provide immediate savings with few positions open at this time.

Wasinger suggested reducing expenditures would have to be “death by a thousand cuts” — making changes such as scanning and emailing documents rather than printing them out and mailing, or not putting paychecks in envelopes when they are direct deposit.

Smith-Hanes said while the expenditures are about $2.4 million more than projected revenue, it will balance with the amount of expected cash carryover. He also noted the commissioners are on a deadline.

“I will say the departments in this organization have a good track record of not spending everything that’s budgeted for them. So I agree with Commissioner Wasinger that this a long-term trend, but it was a trend we discussed when we talked about the financial forecast back in February, and we’re here in July. It would be very difficult to change that trajectory in the next week,” he said.

Commissioners must give direction by next Monday for the proposed budget to be published in order for the budget hearing to be conducted Aug. 6.

Once published, the budget cannot increase, but can decrease. State law requires county budgets to be approved by Aug. 25.

Smith-Hanes also asked for specific directions from the commission.

“I have to ask what staff is being asked to do. Do you have a number in mind? My fear is if you say to me, ‘Hey, go back and talk to department heads about what they can cut,’ the response is going to be $12.75.

“Honestly, staff has brought you what you have asked for to this point. If you’re asking for something different in the next week, I would like to know what it is you’re asking for so that we have a shot at achieving that,” he said.

“Cutting back 2, 3 percent, is there a way to do that?” Wasinger asked. “Something has to change. I don’t know how to be more clear. It’s frightening.”

She then proposed a 1 percent cut.

“Something just has to be done. If they want us to do it, that’s fine, but I hate to do this willy nilly,” she said.