Increased property taxes, an across-the-board budget cut, a half-cent sales tax, less county funding for outside agencies, vacant county jobs unfilled, and decreasing county employee health insurance benefits.

Those steps may ease Ellis County’s budget crunch in 2020.

Ellis County’s three commissioners came up with those options during their regular meeting Monday evening.

“All the department heads are aware of this situation?” asked County Commissioner Butch Schlyer of County Manager Phillip Smith-Hanes.

“Yes, commissioner, we have been discussing for about a year and a half now that 2020 would be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, in terms of limited ability to do smoke and mirrors,” Smith-Hanes said. “And so they are aware that we’re having this conversation and I don’t think anybody’s happy about it but they’re prepared to bring the commission what you’re asking for.”

Smith-Hanes has asked the commissioners to start early this year preparing the county’s 2020 budget, as the commissioners wrestle with an increasingly serious funding shortfall over the next few years.

At Monday's meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main, Smith-Hanes said staff will take guidance from to prepare the early round of budgets and revisions in March and April. The commissioners are looking for $2 million to solve the county's budget problem.  

Firm figures on county valuations, health insurance increases, taxes and other numbers that go into the budget won’t be available until May and June, when final revisions are possible, he said.

Schlyer said county departments will have to be as lean as they can be.

While County Commissioner Dustin Roths and Schlyer said they don’t like asking for specific across-the-board cuts in department budgets, Roths said it would probably have to be in the neighborhood of 1.5 percent.

“Part of the problem about not asking across-the-board is picking favorites and not expecting everybody to do their part in fixing this fiscal situation,” he said.

Roths suggested a gradual decrease of 2.5 to 3.5 percent a year in the county’s compensation of whole family health insurance. Right now the county reimburses 92.5 percent.

“As we’ve alluded to before, we’re losing control of that cost structure because we cover a percentage,” Roths said. “When you cover a percentage of something you don’t know what it’s going to cost from year to year.”

Roths said he’d rather compensate more in salaries and try to fill vacant positions.

County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst agreed that wages are also a priority for him.

“I’d like to see wages go up so we can hire people,” he said, while at the same time cutting the insurance reimbursement in 2020 to 82 percent. However, Haselhorst liked Roths’ idea to reduce the reimbursement rate gradually by 3.5 percent each year over three years.

With retirements coming up in the next few months, Haselhorst said departments might have to go without filling positions.

“One employee with benefits is a lot of money,” he said. “I think before any positions are filled that needs to be brought before the commission, and we talk about it. That means people will have to stop filling positions without us knowing about it at all.”

Roths said the general fund might be the best place to park the county's share of about $1.4 million in leftover money from the recently retired countywide half-cent sales tax that was levied to pay for construction and remodeling on three county buildings.

Ultimately, the county’s portion could help stem the tide “to make it as less financially burdensome on our staff as possible,” he said.

While Roths said he welcomes suggestions from county staff, he said it’s likely Ellis County also will need to find additional revenue, given the dire situation.

“It’s something that will need to be done at the most minimum inconvenience to our citizens as possible,” he said.

It’s possible the county may have to raise the levy on each $1,000 of property value by one mill, Haselhorst said. One mill generates about $388,000 in property taxes, he said, and on a $175,000 house the increase would amount to about $20 a year.

Haselhorst also raised the prospect of a countywide half-cent sales tax, which he said the public would understand.

“I think that’s something we really need to explore,” he said, noting it could go to a vote in the November 2020 general election. “That’s something I’d be in favor of. We’d really have to educate the public on this, why we need it.”

Sales tax money could pay for road and bridge projects, such as the 20 bridges the county will need to replace over the next 15 years at a cost of millions of dollars, Haselhorst said.

“If we have a bridge collapse tomorrow, we have no way of funding it or replacing it,” he said.

Haselhorst and Schlyer both mentioned cuts to county funds for outside agencies. Haselhorst said $100,000, while Schlyer advocated for more.

“I would like to see that cut by probably $300,000, even if it means not to fund some,” Schlyer said. “I don’t believe our Ellis County government should take the brunt of everything. Those outside agencies are going to have to take a hit, and a big hit.”

In 2019 the county will give $1.052 million to outside agencies, with High Plains Mental Health Center getting $281,000 at the top end, said Smith-Hanes.

In other business, the commission:

• Decided not to move right now on spending $1.4 million in money leftover from a half-cent sales tax the county collected through September to pay off bonds for construction and remodeling of county buildings. The commissioners may spend a small portion of the leftover money for a workout room for firefighters and law enforcement personnel to take advantage of workout equipment offered for donation by Munsch Fitness and Planet Fitness. The county will get requests for proposals from contractors, then decide if the project is affordable.

• Approved a recommendation from Landfill Foreman Vern Ruder that starting in April, the Ellis County Solid Waste/Transfer Station will have new hours. Instead of the current schedule of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, the new hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p .m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

• Approved a recommendation from Public Works Director Bill Ring that the county extend its 2016 five-year contract with the Finney County Landfill an additional five years to 2026. That locks in existing contractual terms that are advantageous to the county, Ring said.

• Heard from County Counselor Bill Jeter that the county is now doing tax foreclosure sales every year to remain more current with collecting taxes. A tax foreclosure sale in May will include five tracts for which the owners couldn’t be served. Those owners will have until the day before the sale to redeem their property, Jeter said.