Department heads in Ellis County have managed to cut 1.5 percent from their 2020 budgets so far, the first steps in helping avert a future county budget crisis.

Ellis County Commissioners previously asked every department head to make the cuts, with the goal being to cut $2 million out of the budget.

County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes presented the first round of proposed budgets to the Ellis County Commissioners during their regular meeting Monday evening at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.

“Obviously this is just the start, this is the tip of the iceberg, for what we need to get taken care of,” said County Commissioner Dustin Roths. “I think I can speak for my fellow commissioners when I say we’re not willing to watch this thing go bankrupt. We’re going to do what we need to do.”

With a 1.5 percent cut, General Fund expenditures for 2020 would be $1.86 million more than revenues.

Proposed General Fund expenditures would be more than $21.813 million, said Smith-Hanes, while General Fund revenues would be more than an estimated $19.952 million. That’s one-tenth of one percent more than 2019.

“I really appreciate staff getting to this number for us,” Roths said.

Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst said the early proposals provide some numbers now for the commission to work with.

“We have the right direction,” Haselhorst said, “we just have a ways to go.”

Smith-Hanes said the reduction is an improvement over 2019, but still reflects a spend-down of cash carryover in 2020.

“Overall, looking at what we’ve done so far, I’d characterize the submissions from the departments as a fair degree of pain and not much gain,” Smith-Hanes said.

The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the budget in depth with department heads from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. March 29.

Smith-Hanes pointed out that to get the 1.5 percent cut, some departments were forced to make cuts that affect personnel in one way or another. County Appraiser and Public Works departments, for example, have some positions that they will hold vacant for 2020, he said.

In his department, Smith-Hanes can make budget by having one of his staff work one day every pay period for Public Works.

County Clerk, Register of Deeds and the Sheriff’s Office are reducing salary expenditures out of currently filled positions.

“They’ve done that in a few different ways, but the impact of all those was less employment of current staff,” Smith-Hanes said.

County Clerk Donna Maskus and Register of Deeds Rebecca Herzog are proposing the commission change the county’s personnel policy from defining 40 hours a week as “full-time” for benefit purposes.

Some staff could take a cut to their hours, and still get full benefits then.

“I just find it disheartening that this quick into the game it gets into staffing issues,” said County Commissioner Butch Schlyer. “I guess that’s just what we’re tasked with, and we’ll just have to meet that challenge.”

The proposed budget so far doesn’t include any cost increases for insurance, which won’t be known until about June. It assumes the mill levy rate will stay the same, but that the mill levy will yield a 1.5 percent increase, said Smith-Hanes.

It also doesn’t include proposed transfers from any of the county’s reserve accounts.

The county’s Wage and Benefit Committee is proposing a 2 percent cost of living increase, as well as completion of the pay plan policy for 2020.

The proposal also assumes: A reduction of $225,000 to funding for outside agencies; the transfer to the Special Highway Fund stays the same for 2020 as for 2019; the transfer for the Building Capital Fund stays the same; and a $100,000 transfer to the Equipment Capital Transfer fund, which this year is zero.

“There are a number of things that the commission could make changes to,” said Smith-Hanes, “including the number for raises, the number that you want to transfer to capital, the number that you want to transfer from reserves, mill rate, many, many different possibilities.”

Roths said the proposal shows a more surgical approach to cuts, and he praised Smith-Hanes and the department heads for solutions like sharing employees.

“This is the kind of problem solving that needs to be done in the county,” Roths said, saying now the commissioners need to look at where services can be cut, and what residents are willing to accept.