More budget cuts, with possible layoffs, could be in the cards for Ellis County in 2021.
Faced with expenses outpacing revenue yet again next year, Ellis County commissioners Monday night took a sharp look at many different budget scenarios and came to the conclusion that county budgets can’t increase in 2021 and more revenue is definitely required.
“Let’s see what would happen if department heads cut 1%, and they need to let us know if that’s going to result in layoffs,” was the directive from county commission chairman Butch Schlyer to interim county administrator Darin Myers. “Then as we put pencils to things, we’ll try to straighten everything out.”
Budgets the past couple of years, 2019 and 2020, saw deep cuts totaling $1.9 million to county departments and to outside agencies that rely on county funding.
Not enough money is the situation again, but with an added snag. The challenge was discussed at length as 2021’s budget talks began Monday night during the regular commission meeting.
“There isn’t money to cut without getting into personnel, and some are worse than others,” Schlyer said. “The clerk only has four and a half people in her department. Our register of deeds only has three. There’s no room for them to cut. Same with county attorney.”
“Mmm hmm,” agreed Commissioner Dean Haselhorst.
Schlyer said he told Myers earlier in the day, “I want to see these budgets come in lean, as lean as people can make them.”
Again Haselhorst verbally agreed.
“Based on what the sales tax does,” Schlyer said, “we’re gonna have to get out our pencil, and if that means shorten the work week, or if that means looking at certain departments and maybe laying people off, that might happen. But the days of doing this across-the-board cuts, we’re down to the bone. There just isn’t nothing there.”
The commissioners are holding town hall presentations across the county this month to ask voters to approve two county half-cent sales taxes. The questions will be posed on a ballot mailed out this spring by the County Clerk’s Office to all registered voters in the county.
Haselhorst recommended brutal honesty at the town halls to tell voters of the dire situation.
Commissioner Dustin Roths said while some departments may be asked to cut 1%, those with bigger budgets may have to cut more.
“From my perspective, EMS, Public Works and sheriff,” Roths said. “This is one of those things we at least gotta ask and they gotta be candid with us about what that looks like.”
Haselhorst had a different opinion.
He was thinking 2% cuts, he said, excluding road and bridge, because as much as $3 million has been taken the past 12 years from that department to balance the county’s budgets. Recently, for example, Public Works tagged $800,000 of its funds to cover the planned new Northwest Business Corridor, and will probably match that amount again.
The county’s 140 miles of blacktop and its bridges bear the brunt, Haselhorst indicated.
“It’s time to put money back in road and bridge or we don’t have to worry about EMS going anywhere because they can’t get there because we don’t have roads,” he said.
Cuts aren’t the answer now, he said.
“We need to figure out how we’re going to generate income in this county and put money back in that department, starting now,” Haselhorst said, tapping his pen to the desk.
“Nobody likes property tax-raising, including myself,” he said. But property taxes on his Russell County cultivated ground are $16 an acre, compared to $8 an acre in Ellis County.
“We have to look at ways to generate income, we can’t keep cutting,” he said. “You can’t continue that trend in this county or there won’t be a county road left to drive on.”
Major projects are looming, Haselhorst noted, citing, for example, a $4 million bridge replacement north of Ellis.
“Are we gonna close that entire stretch? There’s a lot of people that live out there that rely on that bridge to come to Ellis to bring their crops,” he said. “There’s a lot of companies out of Zurich that haul grain, etc., Palco, Zurich, to WaKeeney, Hays, etc. Are we going to send everybody over to 183 and bring them down that way? You guys have no idea, your phone will start ringing, when you say you’re going to close that road. And that’s just one.”
Others include the Catharine blacktop, the Ellis blacktop south of Ellis and many others, he said. If the commission continues to rely on cuts, then layoffs and a four-day work week may be part of the answer, Haselhorst said.
“Cutting is over. We need to figure out the other side of how we’re going to generate income in order to provide all the services we provide in this county, and we provide a lot of services, and they’re all great services. I don’t want to cut any of them,” Haselhorst said. “I don’t want to go back to having two ambulances service the county. That would be a disaster.”
He estimated that to chip seal 1 mile of blacktop is $22,000.
“Do we eliminate blacktop and go back to rock roads?” he asked.
Doing the math, Myers said it costs about $1 million to pave a mile of new road, or $400,000 a mile for an overlay. Blacktop lasts seven to eight years. At that rate, Ellis County should have $2.6 million socked away for overlay alone.
Bridges, which last 75 years, require an extra $5.6 million annually.
“If you combine those two together, you’re looking at $8.2 million a year, which is twice the current budget of public works,” Myers said.
Roths suggested looking at the budgets of peer counties, at their sheriff, EMS and public works operations.
“We know where money can come from and that’s a discussion we need to have with the voters,” Roths said. “And then they make the ultimate decision whether road and bridge is funded the way we think it should be.”
He also suggested looking at contracting out some road and bridge work.
“There’s a lot of dirt work equipment in this county that is privately owned that could possibly be used on our county roads,” Roths said. “The beauty of private contractors is they don’t have health insurance to pay, they don’t have big retirements, they don’t have time that they leave, they can do it in the middle of the evening, stuff like that, where a county worker has a pretty set schedule. I think we could see some aggressive numbers and maybe some potential for savings.”
Haselhorst said he and Ring researched that a couple of years ago.
“It was surprising it wasn’t as cost effective as you’d think,” he said. “At the end of the day you realize you didn’t save anything.”
Ring said contractors would require a lot of supervision to protect the county.
“We’re responsible for the condition of those roads,” Ring said. “For fear of the liability, if it wasn’t taken care of properly, that’s all on us.”
Also, contractors are jammed up with work, he said.
“If we work at their convenience, what do we do when a citizen calls the office and says the stretch in front of my house got washed out because of the rain last night?” Ring asked. “We lose all control of our roads, of who’s going to fix them when.”
In reality, the sales tax may not make much of a dent in the county’s financial crunch, Myers suggested, citing Public Works’ supply budget alone. That’s $460,000 not in the line-item budget, but made by purchase order at the end of the year from what the department managed to save all year long.
“If you look at what Bill’s not budgeting for, the end-of-year POs for asphalt, for paint, signs, culverts, chip seals, it was roughly $500,000,” Myers said. “If he budgeted for those line items … that would almost eat up everything we would get from that quarter-cent sales tax.”