When preparing for the 2017 budget, Ellis County employees were instructed to cut anything that could be cut.

Departments were asked to reduce their total budgets by approximately 3 percent, and several officials met with Ellis County commissioners Thursday morning to discuss their cuts and funding needs.

“I’m still praising our department heads for making the cuts they have,” Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst said.

The reductions were mandated as an effort to balance the county’s budget, which was facing a $3.7 million shortfall partly due to decreased oil and agriculture values. The commission heard from six departments during Thursday’s special meeting and also considered funding requests from 15 outside agencies.

Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees presented a budget that marks a decrease of nearly 3 percent from this year’s spending. The budget also calls for drawing one-time trust funds, he said.

Drees also expressed concern about how the cuts this year could have unintended future consequences, as the state of Kansas in 2017 will implement a property tax lid on local governments. The legislation will prohibit the county from raising the mill levy more than the rate of annual inflation in the Consumer Price Index without a public vote.

“Whatever we set our budget at next year, we’re going to be stuck with for a long time even if oil comes back, like it always has,” Drees said. “We’re not going to be able to increase our county tax, the amount we’re spending, which is concerning. Because of the current budget crisis, we are all artificially driving down what we’re spending. For a lot of us, that’s not sustainable.”

Drees also noted that, of the 105 Kansas counties, Ellis County’s mill levy is ranked at 100, meaning only five counties have a lower tax rate. The current mill levy is 36.7.

There could be a slight increase to the mill levy specifically for Ellis County Rural Fire, which is a separate taxing entity that affects only residents of Schoenchen and unincorporated Ellis County. The rural nature of the tax base means that department was hit especially hard by the lagging oil economy, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said.

An increase of three-fourths of a mill would be needed to keep up operations, he said, noting county officials and accountants have examined the department’s budget searching for other options.

“The bottom line bad news for the commission is there is essentially no way to avoid a small mill levy increase for the fire district,” Smith-Hanes said.

The budget and mill levy rates will be finalized after the county receives its assessed valuation numbers.

Significant savings were realized in several county departments through personnel transitions. The health department slashed its budget by 15.25 percent, largely due to Kerry McCue taking over as department head of the health and EMS departments. Longtime administrator Butch Schlyer will retire this year.

A health clerk position also will not be filled following the retirement of another employee. This will save funds, but might require the department to close for a lunch hour due to reduced office coverage, Schlyer said.

Emergency management also will see a significant cost reduction due to Darin Myers now serving as that department’s coordinator, as well as fire chief.

In Public Works, one unfilled truck driver position was eliminated, and chip seal repairs for 2017 will be reduced by approximately 3 miles. The special highway fund was another point of concern, as that fund will have a balance of $113,400. The fund is the primary source of money for bridge repairs, and urgent projects already have been identified, Smith-Hanes said.

“We’ve stolen (funds) from road and bridge year after year, and it’s coming home to roost,” Commissioner Barbara Wasinger said. “We can’t do anything in the county if we can’t drive anywhere.”

To help increase revenue for public works, rate increases have been suggested for certain solid waste and environmental/zoning services. Any increases must be approved by the commission at a later time.

Most outside agencies will have their county funding cut by 3.3 percent, since that was the amount of reduction handed to county departments. Letters will be sent to those agencies informing them of the decision.

Only two agencies were kept at current funding levels — High Plains Mental Health Center and Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas. Commissioners noted these services provide valuable cost-cutting services by serving vulnerable residents.

High Plains was granted a slightly higher funding amount than in 2016, when it had requested approximately $25,000 more than the $244,900 received. This year, the commission opted to award the entire requested amount of $270,845.

“I think two of the agencies that do us a wonderful job and save a lot of money are DSNWK and High Plains Mental Health,” Haselhorst said. “These are two agencies we absolutely, positively need. They actually make us money by keeping people off the streets, out of jail, etc.”

There will be another special budget meeting at 9 a.m. June 30 at the Ellis County Administrative Center.