With Ellis County Commissioners poised to cut either jobs or benefits to trim $2 million from the county’s 2020 budget, employees in County Clerk Donna Maskus' office are proposing a different solution.

“My employees came to me and wanted to know if something could be done,” said Maskus at a special budget meeting on Wednesday with the County Commission at the Cottonwood Extension District, 601 Main.

About 95 percent of Maskus’ department budget is salaries and benefits, she said, so her employees are proposing the county change its definition of a full-time employee from one who works 40 hours a week, so hours can be cut to save money. Employees working fewer than 40 hours would still retain their benefits, such as health insurance and paid time off.

“My employees really want you to know they don’t want to lose their benefits,” Maskus said, noting her staff is highly trained, very knowledgeable and experienced.

“It’s an issue that’s very concerning,” said Maskus. “I have top-notch employees, and I don’t want to lose the employees that I have.”

Changing the full-time definition was met with some approval.

“I’m definitely open to the idea of lowering that hourly restriction so that people can keep their benefits,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths.

The county’s wage and benefits committee will weigh in on its recommendations for salaries and benefits for the 2020 budget.

But Roths warned that the county’s dire budget situation means the commissioners will have to draw the line.

“The idea of raising wages where we don’t really have a problem filling positions doesn’t seem like something I would be in favor of,” he said, noting he prefers holding the line on wages over eliminating jobs.

Commissioner Butch Schlyer said he’d be in favor of a cost of living increase, but not any salary step increases.

Commissioner Dean Haselhorst said a cost of living increase is a must, but he favors a previously mentioned 3.5 percent decrease to the portion of healthcare insurance the county pays.

“We have a huge deficit here we’re trying to fill,” Haselhorst said.

In her presentation to the commissioners, Register of Deeds Rebecca Herzog said she cut what she could from her expenditures, and then went after employee wages.

Haselhorst commented that Herzog has done a lot in previous years to cut her budget. He suggested cross-training an employee that can be shared by the offices of Herzog, Maskus and Ellis County Appraiser Lisa Ree.

While sharing a position would have value, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said jobs in the various departments are knowledge-based jobs with different skill sets that require specialized training.

“Certainly we’ll continue to explore,” Smith-Hanes said, “but it’s not as simple as it sounds.”

Ree said during her presentation that the majority of her expenses are also personnel. The only way she was able to meet the 1.5 percent cut the commissioners are requesting was to cut an open position.

“That comes with some concerns,” Ree said, because it gives her 7.25 positions now, compared to other counties of similar size, which have 10 employees in their Appraiser’s Office.

“I’m really concerned that with less staff that our office will be able to meet our statutory requirements, the deadlines, the state requirements and regulations,” she said. “I really feel like we are pushing as hard as we can push already. I don’t know where we can push anymore.”

Already this spring, Ree was forced to seek extensions from the state to meet some deadlines, Smith-Hanes said. Making matters worse, Ree said, in four years, three employees will retire.

In discussing possible cuts to benefits, Schlyer said Ellis County offers a very generous paid time off benefit, which he said makes scheduling and staffing hard, according to some department heads.

“We offer more PTO than the City of Hays offers,” Schlyer said. “We offer generous holidays, plus we offer generous PTO.”

Haselhorst and Roths agreed with Schlyer that the commission should take a look at the county’s PTO benefit, and asked Smith-Hanes to seek feedback from department heads.

“Is that okay?” Haselhorst asked.

“I have a sense of the response I’ll get already,” said Smith-Hanes, adding that, “I would also challenge the commission to keep in mind the cumulative impacts. So, we’re giving no step increases, requiring people to pay more for their health insurance, and reducing their PTO accrual benefit … When you accumulate those things, that makes us a relatively unattractive employer.”

Haselhorst acknowledged that, but said he’s well aware, for example, of what the county pays dump truck drivers now in the Public Works Department.

“I know what we pay out there for starting wages and I don’t know why anybody would want to come to work for Ellis County,” he said.

Smith-Hanes said the benefit package is part of what makes the county attractive.

“Theoretically, one of the reasons you’re coming here is we pay 92.5 percent of your full family coverage, if you’ve got a spouse and children, there’s a $20,000 value to that,” Smith-Hanes said. “You’re getting PTO. You’re getting holidays …. So your benefit package is a part of what makes you an attractive employer.”

In other budget discussions, regarding money the county hands over to help fund outside agencies, Smith Hanes said Bill Jeter, the county’s legal counsel, advised him on the county’s obligations.

“Basically we have essentially no statutory obligations for the outside agencies, we do have a couple contractual obligations,” he said, citing High Plains Mental Health Center, as an example, where Ellis County has pledged its support.

And while the county has no obligation to fund the Humane Society of the High Plains to provide animal control services, it’s advisable the funding continue, he said.

“If we don’t fund somebody to do animal control, that responsibility does fall back on the Sheriff,” Smith-Hanes said. “What we’re paying the Humane Society is much less than we’d be paying an additional officer for the sheriff’s department.”

Outside agencies make their budget pitches to the county in June.

The three county commissioners will trim their budget in part by telling the Northwest Kansas Planning and Development Commission, based in Hill City, that Ellis County will no longer pay $38,000 in annual dues.

Instead, the county will offer the western Kansas rural economic development alliance $22,500. Schlyer attends the organization’s regular meetings for Ellis County, and said while the membership is beneficial, it’s not worth $38,000.

“At the last two meetings, of all the membership they have, there’s only been a half dozen people there,” he said.

“I hate to shut them down,” Roths said. “They can keep pretending like we’re wealthy, but as a county government, we’re not.”

The commissioners also decided to reduce the county’s membership in the Hays Chamber of Commerce from a $1,500 tier member to a $600 tier member.

Jeter said he could save the commission money on the contractual fees he charges the county by only attending the commission’s regular weekly meeting as needed.

“We’re probably looking in the neighborhood of $500 a month off my retainer, which would be a savings of $6,000 to the commissioners,” Jeter said.

The commissioners also agreed to reduce the number of conferences they attend.

In other budget discussions, Sheriff Ed Harbin said he originally thought he’d have to lay off a position, but instead he’s cut items from the jail budget, vehicle repair, overtime, and money that would have been carried over as savings to spend for replacement vehicles in the future.