In a three-hour marathon that started at 5 p.m. Monday, the Ellis County Commissioners heard from 14 local agencies, each one acknowledging the county’s 2020 budget crisis while at the same time asking that their annual funding request be granted.
Each agency representative had their brief turn before the microphone to state their case at the regular meeting of the commission in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main. County Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst commented on the rare sight of a crowd, with every chair filled.
County Commissioner Butch Schlyer didn’t hesitate to offer feedback right off, alternately sympathetic and stern, after the first presentation by Lee Dobratz, director of the Ellis County Historical Society, 7th and Main.
Explaining the Society’s crumbling building infrastructure, lack of dry storage space without leaking water, small staff and low wages, Dobratz said the situation was precarious for county historical records such as old property deeds, court records and photographs. All the fat in the budget has been trimmed, she said, and all that remained to cut was one of her three part-time employees.
“It will be difficult to keep the Historical Society open with only three employees,” Dobratz told the commission.
Schlyer’s response was quick and held the attention of the room.
“I’d like to remind you and every other person in this room, we already, with our budget we’re working on, we haven’t funded a position for the Ellis County Attorney, we have a vacancy in the Ellis County Health Department, we have a merged directorship of Ellis County Health Department and EMS, we’ve eliminated the EMS position, the assistant director, we have a vacant position in Public Works, for a truck driver as well as an equipment operator, our Register of Deeds and County Clerk have said the only way they can meet budget is by reducing staff hours, we’ve eliminated a three-quarter time position in the Appraiser’s Office,” Schlyer said. “So if you have to eliminate positions, so be it. Our staff in Ellis County could be looking at some real dire hardships come next year.”
The steady stream of presentations, one after another, gradually painted a picture of the needs in Ellis County, where public money fills gaps in funding.
County commissioners warned the agencies several months ago that they would be looking to cut as much as $300,000 from the $1.05 million in funding the county supplied 21 outside agencies in 2019 and years previously.
For consideration on the chopping block, there has been county money:
• For subsidized therapy and counseling for residents, including to fulfill the long ago legislative mandate that people with severe mental illness get treatment in the community rather than being locked away in a mental hospital; for mental health treatment for jail inmates; and for hot daily meals and services for the county’s old people.
• To help developmentally disabled adults, whose needs might be minimal or around-the-clock; for forensic interviews of children who have been sexually abused; for advocating in court for abused and neglected children placed into foster care; for school children and the community to access free art and cultural programming; and for foster grandparents to help struggling school children with confidence and tutoring.
• For helping developmentally disabled adults hold jobs in the community; to help toddlers and children with physical and developmental delays by getting screened for therapy and treatment to catch them up; for conservation to save ground and surface water, top soil and other natural resources; and for a public transportation bus that takes mostly low-income residents to doctor appointments, shopping and recreation.
• For a regional planning commission that helps write grants and provide small-business revolving loans; for grief counseling for adults and children; for taking care of stray and abandoned cats and dogs that might otherwise run wild and spread disease; and for helping 4-Hers and other youth with programs from livestock education to soccer.
Like others who spoke, High Plains Mental Health Executive Director Walt Hill sympathized with the commissioner’s task of deciding what to cut, but his comment drew audience laughter.
“Best wishes in your budgeting process,” Hill said. “We do have emergency response teams during your budgeting process, and would be glad to send them out. Just call us and we’ll be there. We’re here for you.”
Some agency representatives were thanked for their work and told they were appreciated for what they do.
Both the commissioners and presenters made the distinction between services that are life-saving and life-enhancing.
“Our focus is on life-saving and life-sustaining services, people who have severe mental illness, depression, anxiety, other problems in life,” Hill said. “Not to discount anything that any other agency provides, but in looking at life-sustaining versus life-enhancing, we see that the medical services that we provide are important to save lives, reduce costs, reduce other impacts in the county, unemployment, workforce issues, jail time, time spent by law enforcement.”
Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas serves 551 intellectually disabled adults in an 18-county region, 34 percent of those in Ellis County. Currently they have a wait list of 125 people, with the wait time for services typically longer than eight years, said Jerry Michaud, president and CEO.
The agency has 27 positions currently open, with 222 of its employees in Ellis County, making it the county’s ninth largest employer, Michaud said. There are 65 individuals in job placements with employers, including 37 businesses in Ellis County, and 27 individuals on work crews.
“The system today is very different than what the historic system was, which was an institution-based support. That cost of institutional support is about three to four times what it costs to serve people in the community,” Michaud said. “I feel the hardship here, I ask for every bit of support the county can provide.”
“Jerry, your organization does a great job in our county,” said Haselhorst. “We thank you for your services you provide for us.”
DSNWK is a hot-button issue for the evening, said County Commissioner Dustin Roths, noting people throughout the county are affected by the population the agency serves.
“You guys are taking care of some of the most vulnerable people in our county, and we can’t tell you how much we appreciate that and how selfless a lot of that work is,” Roths said. “We’re going to do our best to give you what we can.”
Hays Area Children’s Center, whose services are free as federally mandated, screens and evaluates infants and toddlers with medical problems and developmental delays, catching them early to address them, including early diagnosis of autism. They have 80 children in the program now.
“We appreciate every dollar you have given our firm in the past,” said registered nurse Beth Fisher, family services coordinator for the agency, noting early intervention saves money later. “Investing in early childhood really does bring you a return on your investment.”
“That was hard to hear as a guy with a wife who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant,” said Roths. “My wife actually serves on the board for the Hays Area Children’s Center and she’s an instructor at Fort Hays State University for early childhood and special education, so I get this at home all the time … so this isn’t a hard one for me.”
Haselhorst thanked the Ellis County Council on Aging, which oversees the budgets of six senior agencies, for cutting $20,000 out of the budget request they brought to the commission.
Access Transportation in 2018 provided 70,000 rides in the city and county, operating 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, said Wade Kruse, transportation manager.
As far as Safe Ride, a free ride for anyone too impaired to drive, the bus does 300 to 400 rides a night, Kruse said. Any decrease in funding results in a decrease in funding from the Kansas Department of Transportation, he said. For every $1 from the county, the agency gets $2.33 from state and federal government.
“Saturdays and Sundays during the daytime hours, we are booked solid,” Kruse said. “We have to refuse rides, we’re so busy.”
A funding cut, he said, could affect their operational hours.
Decisions about who does or doesn’t get funding will be made soon as the commission wraps up the 2020 county budget loose ends. Meanwhile, Schlyer sounded a cautionary note.
“To all the other people out here, I don’t want to trivialize any of the services provided in Ellis County by these agencies, yet some are different than others,” he said. “When you talk about life-saving and life-sustaining, that’s more of a humanistic type service than some others on the list, and they carry a little more weight.”