Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees wanted to explain Monday evening to Ellis County Commissioners a letter he sent last week was not a threat of a lawsuit over additional budget cuts, but his attempt to speak was cut off when commissioners told him the meeting had been adjourned.
At last week’s meeting, Commissioner Barbara Wasinger was not ready to accept the 2019 budget for official publication, citing expenditures were $2.4 million higher than expected revenue. She suggested the budget be sent back to department heads to try and reduce that amount, recommending a 1 percent cut from all departments. Commissioners Dean Haselhorst and Marcy McClelland agreed.
After County Administrator Phil Smith-Hanes presented the revised budget Monday, Wasinger read from a prepared statement in which she reiterated the need to reduce expenditures.
Wasinger provided copies of both her prepared statement and Drees’ letter to the media after the meeting.
“For the past few years we have moved money from capital accounts and using it to pay for day-to-day operations, hoping that someday in the future, additional tax revenue would rebound or appear. Painfully, the reality is that we as a county can no longer rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said.
“We were elected by the taxpayers of Ellis County to make hard decisions when it comes to spending, and that’s what we need to do now and in the future,” she said.
She then cited Drees’ letter, dated July 11, sent to Smith-Hanes and copied to each commissioner.
In the letter, Drees outlined his budget reductions to meet the requested additional 1 percent cut, most of which comes from subsistence and professional fees, which the letter says are used to bring in witnesses for trials.
Subsistence fees were reduced by $2,000 and professional fees by $3,650. Drees outlined a total of $9,250 to make the 1 percent cut.
However, Drees said in his letter, commissioners should expect the subsistence and professional fees to meet his original budget.
He also noted the budget he originally submitted was $930,474, which was reduced to $924,787 before the commission requested the 1 percent cuts.
“I am now down $14,937 from what I believe is necessary to adequately fund my department. Kansas Statute requires the county to ‘adequately fund’ the County Attorney,” Drees’ letter concludes.
“It appears Mr. Drees believes the court should decide what constitutes ‘adequate funds’ and not the Ellis County Commission, whose members have been elected by taxpayers to make these very decisions,” Wasinger read from her prepared statement.
“I believe this thinly veiled threat of legal action is unappreciated, unwise and in very poor taste,” she said.
When Wasinger finished her statement, McClelland said she had nothing to add and that Wasinger’s statement was very well-written.
Haselhorst did not comment on the issue until the very end of the meeting, during commissioners’ reports. He first talked for a few minutes about hosting Gov. Jeff Colyer on Saturday at RPM Speedway before commenting on the letter.
“I was a little shocked to get that letter from our county attorney. But we all have to cut. It is what it is. I was a little surprised when we got a threat,” he said.
He then adjourned the meeting. Drees stood and asked to address the commission, but both Haselhorst and Wasinger noted the meeting had been adjourned.
“I never said a threat. I wanted to inform you—” Drees began to say when Wasinger interrupted.
“We just adjourned the meeting. I don’t think there’s anything else on for tonight,” Wasinger said.
Haselhorst said Drees could address the commission at the next meeting, which will be Aug. 6.
“I’m not threatening a lawsuit,” Drees said in an interview with The Hays Daily News after the meeting.
“I’m simply advising them at this 1 percent cut, there’s a very real chance I’m going to come in over budget. I hope not much, but there’s a real chance and I’m just giving them and Phil (Smith-Hanes) notice so they can plan for it,” he said.
He said if his office has its lowest expenditures in four years in every category, he can stay within the proposed 2019 budget.
In her statements, Wasinger also criticized Drees for his budget.
“Comparable counties such as Barton and Ford have larger staffs and significantly lower budgets for 2018 of $702,000 and $824,000, respectively,” she said.
Those figures are correct, according to information on the Kansas Department of Administration website.
According to data Drees submitted with his budget proposal, his office has a staff of 11 — five prosecutors and six support staff. Barton County also has 11 — four prosecutors and seven support staff; and Ford County has a staff of 18 — seven prosecutors and 11 support staff.
After the meeting, Drees also pointed out his data sheet on salary comparisons. In Ellis County, the salary range for assistant prosecutors is $58,000 to $66,000, with the mid-range at $62,000.
In comparison, Barton County’s three assistant prosecutor salaries range from $55,020 to $72,660 with a mid-range of $63,840. Ford County’s six assistant prosecutors’ pay ranges from $55,000 to $75,000, with a mid-range of $65,000.
Drees’ original budget request included an increase of $29,151 for employee salaries. He said that is necessary to raise the salaries of assistant county attorneys Charlene Brubaker and Brenda Basgall.
The proposed budget adds $6,526 for attorney salary increases.
“I’ve got to bring my assistants up to a comparable level,” Drees said. “Brenda’s been with me 15 years, Charlene 14 years, and we’re still asking them to make an amount much smaller than what other counties are paying.”
Drees also had some criticism for the commissioners.
“All the department heads, we had complied with the budget they had requested a week ago. They certainly have the right to say, ‘OK, we’ve got to cut 1 percent,’ but that’s not the reality. We’re in a room where things could have been done other than just say cut 1 percent,” he said.
“They said everybody cut 1 percent, based on what?”