Ellis County residents won’t see a hike in the taxes they pay to the county in 2019, despite the county spending more than it takes in.
Two of the three commissioners for Ellis County voted Monday evening not to increase the budget or the mill levy.
County Commissioner Barbara Wasinger voted against the budget, arguing for deeper cuts. Wasinger has asked repeatedly at commission meetings for the county to stop its long-running habit of spending more money than it gets in revenue.
“While I appreciate that everyone is trying to find ways of generating revenue and finding small ways to cut spending, unfortunately what has been done to date is superficial and mostly symbolic and it doesn’t attack the core problem — overspending,” said Wasinger, reading from a prepared statement to the handful of people attending the public hearing at 5 p.m. in the Commission Room of the Ellis County Administration Center at 718 Main.
Wasinger described the 2019 budget as unsustainable and said future budget deficits should scare all county officials. The county is depleting its financial resources, she said, putting it in the position in the next four years of having to impose a $6.6 million tax increase to keep operating as it does now.
County commissioners Dean Haselhorst and Marcy McClelland agreed the prospects of the budget deficit spiraling further are indeed scary. Haselhorst directed Ellis County Administrator Philip Smith-Hanes to begin in November to develop a budget for 2020 that cuts spending by 3 percent.
The county general fund budget for calendar year 2019 is $22.35 million, funded largely by property taxes. The property tax mill levy, which has not increased since 2016, remains at about $36.98 for every $1,000 of assessed value of residential, commercial and personal property, as well as oil assessments and state-assessed utilities, said Smith-Hanes.
Assessed property values from 2018 to 2019 increased very little in Ellis County, remaining flat for everything except oil assessments, Smith-Hanes said. In 2019 assessed value is estimated in the budget at $389.7 million, compared to $384.6 million in 2018.
The county has kept the mill levy flat largely by transferring money budgeted to save up for capital outlays, such as equipment, to operating budgets. That practice has prompted Wasinger to accuse the county of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In addition, the county has received payments from Buckeye Wind Energy LLC for its wind farm in Ellis County in exchange for paying taxes.
“This budget is not acceptable,” Wasinger said. “I can’t vote for the budget as it is tonight.”
Haselhorst agreed, saying no one likes to raise taxes and no one wants to raise the mill levy. Going forward, he noted, when county employees retire or quit, those positions will probably remain unfilled. He called for a hiring freeze, as well as looking at outsourcing some jobs, such as printing, because salaries aren’t the bulk of the cost, but rather benefits.
“The day of reckoning is getting very close,” he said, adding later that “we’re not going to fix the problem in a year. The overspending didn’t happen in a year.”
All three commissioners agreed to Haselhorst’s proposal to seek a resolution to immediately cut their own salaries of $19,973 by 5 percent, as well as foregoing a 1 percent raise they are scheduled to receive Sept. 1 that is intended for all county employees.
Of the $125,415 in the 2019 budget for the county commissioners, $59,921 is their salaries, while the remainder covers health insurance, social security, workers compensation and the KPERS state retirement fund.
Smith-Hanes pointed out to the commissioners that they’ve already begun the process of trimming back the budget, including when they asked county department heads in March to limit increases to the budget to one-half of 1 percent. In July they ordered another 1 percent trim.
In other budget matters, the commissioners approved a policy to allow a temporary premium payment to some classes of workers that are particularly difficult to hire or retain because of low unemployment in Ellis County. The premium would take the place of raising some salaries permanently.
“Public Works has some positions in their shop that have been vacant 10 to 11 months,” Smith-Hanes explained. The premium could be applied to any classification of employee throughout the county where there are recruitment challenges, he said, noting turnover in Public Works has been higher than average for about three years.
The commissioners also passed a resolution to create a Drug Court grant fund, including $10,000 in start-up money from the 2018 general fund. Remaining funds will come from matching federal grants.
“This is trying to stop the revolving door,” Wasinger said, “which in the end will save us money.”
Drug courts adjudicate people suspected of using drugs without the intent to sell. The courts provide intense supervision and support services, which has been shown elsewhere to reduce a person’s arrest on repeat drug charges.