Ellis County needs to cut another $500,000 to $750,000 from its 2020 budget, says Ellis County Commissioner Dustin Roths.
That might mean eyeing big-budget departments like the Ellis County Health Department, Public Works, Sheriff’s Department and Emergency Medical Services, Roths said at the commission’s regular meeting on Monday night.
The county also should cut benefits to its employees, as well as cap their cost of living increases at 2 percent, he said.
County Departments already have cut their budgets 1.5 percent, but now the county’s three commissioners are talking about asking voters if they want a quarter-cent sales tax to raise revenue.
Roths suggested deeper cuts should be discussed.
“We do need to cut down on our benefit package, it’s exorbitant,” Roths said. “It’s great to give it. It’s not what we can afford … We’d love to be able to take care of people in terms of health care and stuff like that, but it’s just not something we can afford anymore, and we’re going to really struggle with the public if they don’t start seeing us make some tough decisions.’
While some departments already have been cut to the bare bones, he said, it’s time to see what a lessening of service looks like.
“We’re talking big budgets, like Public Works, EMS, Fire, Sheriff’s Office,” Roths said. “We spend a bunch of money on them because they are some of the most important departments we have, right. But we need to start having that discussion.”
County Commissioner Butch Schlyer said that from the 2020 budget proposals presented the past few weeks, it appears department heads have cut all they can to reach a needed $2 million in cuts.
“If cuts need to be made further, it’s probably going to have to be looking at hours of service and things like that,” Schlyer said. “I mean, it’s going to get bad.”
He agreed with County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst that the commissioners put any more budget cuts on hold until the county gets information on employee health care costs and county revenue shortfall or excess.
Unlike commission newcomers Schlyer and Roths, Haselhorst has served on the commission for a number of years. He recalled that over the past three or four years the county already has made deep cuts to a lot of its department budgets.
But Roths said the commission must start looking at what services Ellis County residents actually use.
“That’s when we’ll get into things like our health department,” Roths said. “How much are people utilizing it? … Are we just going to keep staffing really high, hoping people show up, while HaysMed is setting there with these beautiful facilities in competition to our Health Department?”
Schlyer and Haselhorst both brought up cutting funding to county outside agencies. The county spends $1.052 million annually to help 17 local agencies, with the biggest chunks of money going to High Plains Mental Health, $281,646, and Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas Inc., $240,000.
“We could hit those outside agencies for another couple hundred thousand dollars,” Schyler said.
“I think that is definitely something we need to look at,” Haselhorst agreed, adding “going forward if we’re going to make larger cuts, it’s going to be your outside agencies going to get hit, and then we’ll have to look at the larger budgets.”
As he has numerous times, Haselhorst mentioned that already the county has taken funds in years past from Public Works to ease the county’s budget crisis. Having driven about 50 miles of roads this week, he said that while roads remain open, months of bad weather mean Public Works Director Bill Ring will be spending a lot of money to fix roads.
Roths said the public needs to see what it looks like if the county cuts three to five percent from some of the big-budget departments to see what the county can afford to maintain, without hurting people in the agriculture and oil industries.
“We’ve stole from Public Works for quite a few years,” Roths said. “If we continue to do it, it’s going to have to be a complete overhaul of what they actually do. It’s going to have to be looking at how many roads we keep open.”
Schyler said he supports a cost of living adjustment for employees, as recommended by the county’s Wage and Benefit Committee, but not step increases for employees at the three-year and 1-year levels.
Roths suggested capping the cost of living increase at 2 percent, then using the percentage adopted annually by the Social Security Administration if it comes in below that.
He also explained at meeting’s end that he wanted to clarify his comments at the county’s April 8 meeting that were reported by The Hays Daily News and Hays Post.
“I had quite a few people that had contacted me about something that I said and I imagine that I said it, but maybe it was taken out of context,” Roths said. “What they were saying is that I was in favor of a quarter-cent sales tax. In all reality I’m in favor of letting Ellis County vote on a quarter-cent sales tax. I don’t know that I would be in favor of the tax on my own. I think this is a business decision between Ellis County and us, and whether or not they want to keep the level of EMS service that we have, if we go that route to put it toward EMS.”
Roths said that even though he’s almost always not in favor of taxation, he wants to provide voters with information, and let them decide.
“The words that I said were, ‘I would be in favor of a 25-cent sales tax for EMS,’” Roths said. “And the press had it in both their stories. So I had quite a few people, ‘Well what in the world, we got you in there to be the guy to fix the budgets and things of that nature.’ To that I said, ‘I’m in favor of letting people have the opportunity to keep the level of EMS service that they have right now.’ I understand that our budget is the same now, dollar-for-dollar as it was in 2012, not adjusted for inflation, so it’s not as though this county hasn’t been trying. It’s just now it’s going to get real hard.”