Ellis Co.: Revenue up, costs down, but caution urged

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Parts clerk Caleb Garner on Tuesday morning walks across the shop floor of the Ellis County Public Works building at 280th Avenue and Old Highway 40.
Parts clerk Caleb Garner, kneeling, and mechanic Jordan Silva, seated, on Tuesday morning troubleshoot a check engine light and blower motor problem on one of the fleet pickups at the Ellis County Public Works building, 280th Avenue and Old Highway 40.

In a run down of Ellis County’s much-improved financial picture, new county administrator Darin Myers on Monday warned county commissioners they still need to start thinking of ways to bridge the gaps in coming years.

Detailing the improved revenue and lowered expenses, the county’s financial outlook now is good, but that can always change, Myers said. 

“Why am I bringing all this up?” Myers asked after detailing the challenges in coming years. “It’s just very clear to point out that we cannot sustain, even with a sales tax, where we’re at now. We can’t just start going out, increasing budgets and start improving services, doing a whole bunch of other stuff.”

As the commission prepares to start the 2022 budget making process, Myers explained the county has $2.5 million in additional money because revenue for 2020 came in over the $1.06 million budgeted.

At the same time, department heads and elected officials kept their costs under budget by $1.5 million, he said.

Added to that, the county’s quarter-cent sales tax that began in October is sustaining the Ellis County Emergency Medical Services and the county health department, while $5.5 million in general obligation bonds issued in August will cover a lot of planned road improvements.

The county will also save an estimated $600,000 with a different employee health insurance plan without cutting benefits.

Finally, Federal CARES Act funding allowed the county to spend more than $2 million on capital improvement projects.

The road ahead

But Myers noted there are costly needed projects, like replacing the leaking public works building at 1195 280th Ave., 1,400 miles of road to replace and repair, and 198 bridge structures to maintain, as well as needed HVAC in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 708 Main, and the Ellis County Law Enforcement Center, 105 W. 12th, among other things.

“As we look now with the sales tax in place, with the county department’s holding their budgets for many years in a row, with the change in health insurance, the financial forecast for Ellis County is significantly better,” he said. “We have a lot of opportunities to do some of these road projects that we’re looking at, to continue to maintain good benefits for our employees, without breaking the bank, and being able to sustain where we’re at the next two years.”

Budget process to start

Myers gave the forecast in advance of presenting the commissioners next Monday at their regular meeting with a budget calendar and deadlines to meet.

That will include discussing the operating budget, capital improvement plans, and sessions with department heads.

“The forecast looks a whole lot better than when I started as county commissioner, because it was looking real bad at that point,” said Commission Chair Butch Schlyer. “And without that sales tax, I don’t know how we’d be putting budgets together.” The sales tax sunsets in 2030.

Nevertheless, said Schlyer, “We still have the burden to make good decisions going forward.”

The commission saved the county about $100,000 annually by not going out and hiring a new county administrator, Schlyer said.

That referenced the commission’s action Monday to hire Myers, who has been serving as interim county administrator since November after the abrupt resignation of newly hired J.D. Cox after just four months on the job.

“That kind of stuff has an impact as we go through the years,” Schlyer said.

At the same time, there’s a bill in the Legislature to remove the tax lid that prohibits counties in Kansas from making big property tax increases any given year, Myers noted.

“With that tax lid, if a county does find itself in trouble, you just can’t raise the taxes you may need,” Schlyer noted. “You can only go up so far under that tax lid. That can put a big gap in there that you can’t close.”

“We’re headed in the right direction, thanks to the Ellis County voters with the sales tax that we really needed,” said commissioner Dean Haselhorst. “I think that’s going to help move Ellis County forward to the future.”