The Heartland Community Foundation likely will get $5,000 from Ellis County after all, thanks to savings in the county’s budget as the calendar year draws to a close.
Also, an excess of county sales tax money this year might be spent for upgrades to an elevator, video cameras, and heating and air conditioning at the Ellis County Jail, with any money left over possibly going to the county’s general fund.
The money items came up for discussion Monday evening at the regularly scheduled weekly meeting of the Ellis County Commission in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
In speaking up for Heartland, outgoing Ellis County Commissioner Barb Wasinger has argued that the money is well spent because the foundation gets matching funds from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan.
And in good news for the budget, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes informed the commissioners of leftover money from a half-cent countywide sales tax that expired in October.
The excess totals about $1.396 million so far, but there will be more, said Smith-Hanes. One more sales tax reimbursement payment from the state is expected the end of December because not all businesses file sales tax returns monthly, but also quarterly, Smith-Hanes said.
Money for Heartland was not included in the 2018 budget.
“I know that we kind of let that slide past us, but I would like to revisit $5,000 to Heartland where they can double the money from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation,” said Wasinger. Her term on the commission ends in January, when she takes her seat as legislator for the 111th District in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Heartland Executive Director Sandy Jacobs, a Hays City Commissioner and Wasinger’s election campaign co-chair, has previously characterized the foundation as uniquely positioned to find and fund projects with the most impact in Ellis, Rooks and Trego counties. The foundation in June announced $217,000 in local grants.
While Wasinger added the Heartland $5,000 to the evening’s agenda at the last minute, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes assured her that he’s already included the Heartland contribution as a line item in the county’s end-of-year transfers. He indicated action wasn’t needed Monday because the end-of-year transfers will be on the commission’s agenda at their next meeting, Monday, Dec. 17.
End-of-year transfers, he explained, represent excess money over the course of the year that is typically moved to the capital projects fund. The money represents savings from department budgets, and about half can be transferred to capital projects, while the other half goes to the general fund, he said.
“We’ll identify where we have savings and transfer that to Heartland Foundation,” he explained after the meeting. The county the past three years has allocated money to Heartland. “The commission has tried to find the money to do this because they get these matching funds and use them for community projects.”
Also Monday, Smith-Hanes explained that the countywide sales tax implemented Oct. 1, 2013 was designated to repay two bond issues to finance county building construction projects. Those bonds were paid off in August, but the tax didn’t expire until Sept. 30.
Smith-Hanes asked the commissioners what they’d like to do with the money. Options include funding additional needed capital improvements, such as those to the county jail.
“I feel that the money was collected from the sales tax for these bonds, for this bond issue, and so therefore I think it should be used to go ahead with the rest of the improvements,” said County Commissioner Marcy McClelland. “Everything that was on there, that was pulled out, needs to be done eventually.”
In the course of the discussion, Wasinger indicated she favored some of the money for projects, and the remainder for the general fund, for which she has previously expressed deep concern.
This summer she voted against the county’s 2019 budget, saying it was unsustainable because spending is outpacing revenue, and that cuts were superficial and symbolic. Future budget deficits should scare all county officials, she said at that time, warning that the county in the next four years would have to impose a $6.6 million tax increase to keep operating as it does now.
The county has kept its mill levy flat largely by transferring money budgeted to save up for capital outlays, such as equipment, to operating budgets. That practice prompted Wasinger in August to accuse the county of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Smith-Hanes said in mid-November that revenue so far this year has been higher than expected. As of Nov. 1, he said then, ad valorem taxes and department fees had come in much stronger than anticipated. At that time he was projecting that the ending balance would be about $2.925 million. That still only gets the county to a beginning balance for 2020 of about 9.5 percent of annual expenditures, he said in mid-November, rather than the recommended 15 percent.
On Monday evening, as the commissioners discussed the sales tax excess, Wasinger referenced her concern for the general fund.
“The hard part of looking at this though is knowing that there will be a shortfall in the general fund,” she said. “So I would advise to check to see, just guesstimates of what some of these projects cost.”
Smith-Hanes told the commissioners the full amount of the leftover sales tax could easily be spent for pending projects.
“We have at least $600,000 in just jail cameras, elevator and HVAC,” he said. “Just those things alone are at least $600,000. By the time you add in renovations to the court room, the doors at the emergency services building, some upsizing of generators, I think you’re getting close to spending the full amount.”
Wasinger noted again her general fund concern.
“I’m hoping that we can maybe use half of it to finish up some of these projects, and the other half for the general fund,” she said.
Smith-Hanes alerted the commissioners that about half the sales tax money belongs to the city of Hays, which had forfeited its share to the county as its contribution toward paying a share of the building renovations financed with the bonds.
Smith-Hanes said he’ll have to see if Hays wants its remaining share returned.
“It’s not really our money, so legally they have a claim on it,” he said.
In other business, the commission changed the classification of two vacant Public Works bridge crew positions to higher paying heavy equipment operators, at the request of Ellis County Public Works Director Bill Ring.
“Not that we’re expecting heavy snow, but it would give us two more operators to put on the equipment, and it will give us some mowing help in the summer,” Ring said.
Also, the commissioners eagerly adopted a new policy governing the use of credit cards issued to county employees who spend money for the purpose of county business.