Last week there was a full house when outside agencies made presentations to ask the Ellis County commissioners for budget money for 2020.
But on Monday evening, only a few showed up to hear what the commissioners had decided.
Funding for two agencies was completely eliminated, while the other 13 each lost as much as half of what they requested.
Even High Plains Mental Health Center, which all three commissioners have repeatedly praised for doing important work, had $20,000 shaved from its $280,000 request.
Ellis County is one of 20 counties funding Hays-based High Plains, which serves all 20 counties and has a third of its clients in Ellis County.
High Plains executive director Walt Hill was one of the few outside agency representatives in the audience Monday evening for the meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
Asked afterward how High Plains will handle the loss, Hill said, “I don’t know, we’ll have to think about it. We’ll have to see what the other counties do.”
In cutting High Plains, county commission chairman Dean Haselhorst confessed he was conflicted and torn, and had anguished about it for days.
“I had a tough time cutting High Plains Mental Health,” Haselhorst said, “It does a lot for our county.”
Faced with a budget crisis in 2020 and beyond, however, the commissioners had warned months ago that with county revenue falling far short of expenses and county department budgets being cut, outside agencies would also see cuts.
The commissioners had warned it could be as much as $300,000 from the $1.05 million the county provided in 2018. At Monday’s June 10 commission meeting, the agencies in a steady stream of presentations made requests from the county totaling $1,073,719 for 2020.
By meeting’s end they had trimmed the outside agency funding request by $123,000, to $928,800 total.
In announcing Monday evening how much money they would fund, commissioners moved quickly through their list of 15 agencies, each one announcing the funding number they had settled on and splitting the difference when they differed.
The three were unanimous about eliminating funding for the Hays Arts Council, which had asked for $3,385, and for the Ellis Junior Free Fair, which had asked for $3,143.
“I want everybody to take a hard look at this list,” Commissioner Dustin Roths said after making the cuts. “It’s all something that you can donate your hard-earned money to and we don’t have to collect it through taxpayer money.”
For the other agencies:
• High Plains Mental Health requested $280,306 and will get $260,000.
• Developmental Services of Northwest Kansas requested $240,000 and will get $216,000.
• Hays Area Children’s Center asked for $135,000 and will get $120,000.
• Six Ellis County senior agencies asked for $112,750 and will get it, having cut their own requests by more than $19,000.
• Ellis County Historical Society asked for $96,797 and will get $72,250.
• Ellis County Conservation District asked for $72,646 and will get $55,000.
• Access Public Transportation asked for $60,000 and will get $50,000.
• Grow Hays asked for $50,000 and will get $27,500.
• Western Kansas Child Advocacy Center asked for $9,000 and will get $4,500.
• CASA of the High Plains asked for $9,000 and will get $4,750.
• Ellis Alliance asked for $4,835 and will get $1,750.
• Humane Society asked for $3,000 and will get $2,600.
• Center for Life Experience asked for $6,000 and will get $1,700.
Haselhorst said he appreciates what the outside agencies do for the county and said there are opportunities for fundraisers for the agencies, particularly High Plains Mental Health.
“I’d love to visit with you about a fundraiser down the road, that I’ve been involved with, that’s been very successful,” Haselhorst said to Hill.
The outside agency discussion came after a lengthy discussion about funding county department budgets.
County departments earlier this year were asked to cut their budgets by 1.5 percent. Now, with new revenue and expense data in hand, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said the county’s assessed valuation is up 3.6 percent compared to November 2018.
Despite that, the county is still hampered by a state-imposed tax lid that limits raising county property tax revenue by more than 2.7 percent.
“With assessed values going up faster than the tax lid will permit us to levy, we’ll actually see a slight decrease in the mil levy,” Smith-Hanes said. “It does, however, generate about $176,000 more than what we had in the preliminary budget.”
Taking into consideration employee health insurance costs, of which the county pays 89 percent, it looks like the county will save about $144,000 in that area over originally planned, he said.
“We are basically where we need to be in terms of the targeted ending cash balance for 2020,” Smith-Hanes said. “You can see on the updated forecast we’re still not where we need to be for 2021, and we start having red numbers starting in 2022. But certainly all that picture has improved greatly since you first saw these projections back in February.”
In earlier trimming of department budgets, he pointed out, the offices of the appraiser, county attorney, county clerk, county administrator, road and bridge and EMS all have positions held vacant, eliminated or reduced in hours in 2020.
Smith-Hanes recommended restoring a part-time employee to the county health department. Similarly, savings on the register of deeds 2020 health care costs could restore the 2020 pay cut each staff member in that department was scheduled to take.
In discussing the request for a fifth attorney for Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees’ office, the commissioners acknowledged the department’s severe backlog of cases to prosecute. Unlike Roths and Haselhorst, County Commissioner Butch Schlyer favored hiring another attorney at a cost of $30,000 this year and upwards of $50,000 in 2020.
“It’s a fairness issue,” Schlyer said. “If you had a burglary in your store I’m sure you’d want the culprit prosecuted. You wouldn’t want Mr. Drees to say, ‘Well, I’ll put it on the pile over here when I can get to it.’ That’s the position he’s in.”
Haselhorst said he doesn’t want Drees to hire someone this year and then lay the person off in 2020 or 2021.
“I think I trust Tom with that selective prosecution,” Roths said. “I think he’s going to prosecute cases that need to be prosecuted and if he doesn’t have time for low-level drug crime, and things like that end up getting put on the back burner, I hope he does, I hope he gets a break and gets some time to get caught up, and that staff gets caught up, but as of right now I feel like this is where we’re at.”