The Piatt County board’s finance committee came into a budget session on Oct. 29 with $10,000 of its $110,000 in cuts already made, thanks to additional trimming promised by the state’s attorney’s office after the tentative budget for 2019-20 was approved a week earlier.
But no movement was made on the other $100,000 in cuts the board has committed to making before final approval is considered on the budget, which is currently about $500,000 in the red.
(Note: The committee approved $100,000 in additional cuts at a meeting Nov. 5. See associated story).
“We have a goal, but we have no plan to get there,” said Chairman Ray Spencer at the start of the session.
However, a plan was endorsed an hour later – to direct Spencer to deliver ideas on further savings by the next meeting, scheduled for this past Tuesday morning.
“I feel it was a positive outcome. We have a way to move forward,” said Spencer. “I’m pleased they are willing to keep working on it.”
The first 10 minutes of last week’s meeting was made up of mostly awkward silences. That quiet but tense mood was broken by Bob Murrell’s suggestion of further state’s attorney cuts, as well as adjustments to the Emergency Management Agency operating and salary requests.
The committee ultimately did not vote on that proposal or any others.
The Emergency Management Agency was discussed once again, mostly due to a budget increase request to reflect its now-full-time nature and equipment needs as it prepares for state re-certification next year.
But some committee members felt it was unfair for other departments to be required to craft budgets at least 9 percent less than original proposals, yet allow EMA to increase its expenditures from $56,000 this year to $179,000 in the one that starts Dec. 1.
“We’re going to have to try to cut, and the only person that hasn’t is EMA,” said board member Renee Freundt.
Some county officials say the proposal is justified, not just to raise EMA to full-time status in the budget, but to bring the department into governmental compliance for this spring’s state emergency recertification. Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson told the board recently that, if that fails, state and federal agencies can “claw back” any grant and reimbursement dollars delivered to any recipient in the county. That could cost at least $300,000 in EMA grants handed out over the past decade.
EMA Director Mike Holmes noted his 2019-20 budget would be the first to reflect the full-time status he was hired for in May of 2018, explaining that is why he is requesting an increase.
“I was hired full-time to fix the program. That was understood. It was also understood the first budget I was handed was a part-time budget and would go over,” said Holmes. “That would help us gauge what my budget should be.
“So what I’m a little confused at is why my numbers get increased looks for something I was mandated to do,” added Holmes, saying he did cut 10 percent off of his original budget request.
County attorneys also say the proposed salary for Holmes – an increase from $37,000 and $65,000 – is solely at the discretion of the county board chair. About 65 percent of his salary is reimbursed, so the increase would cost the county about $10,000.
“It has always been the custom and practice of the Piatt County Board for the board chairman to set the salary of all appointed department heads,” said State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades.
Board member Bob Murrell countered that a resolution approved on June 12 of this year transferred authority over the EMA department from the sheriff’s department to the county board, not just the chairman. He thought that included salary as well.
Murrell read the resolution, which stated, “as an independent department head, reporting to and under the supervision of the Piatt County board, therefore be it resolved by the Piatt County board that the position of Piatt County Emergency Management Agency director be removed from the direct supervision of the sheriff of Piatt County, and shall be an independent department with reporting and supervisory responsibilities assumed by the Piatt County board.”
Rhoades did not respond to the issue at the meeting, but did say she felt the budget had become a “personal attack” on her office, which has already cut 18 percent from its original budget request.
“We’re not going to discuss salaries right now, and I’m not going to answer that question right now,” she said at the budget meeting.
Later, Rhoades clarified that resolutions like the EMA one approved by the board are “directed toward a single issue or circumstance,” and do not trump overall county ordinances, most of which are spelled out in a 1989 general ordinance.
Although $65,000 is in the tentative budget for Holmes’ salary, Spencer said he would consider other amounts for the sake of the county’s ailing financial status, which has seen balanced budgets but deficit spending in recent years, leading to dwindling fund reserves.
But he added that, “until I am told otherwise, I will set the salary.”
Rhoades also claimed the board had been ignoring her legal counsel, and that her defense of the EMA would be seen in other departments if she feels there is potential liability.
“It should be obvious that the Piatt County State’s Attorney’s Office would have to act to support any of the county offices when the county board seems to be acting contrary to the state laws and ordinance laws. Why would this come as a surprise to Mr. Murrell when the county board is suggesting it doesn’t have to fund a state mandated department?” said the state’s attorney, who is donating back $5,000 of her salary to help the county’s bottom line.
The idea of possibly de-funding EMA was mentioned at an earlier budget meeting, but was not pursued in the tentative budget that was later approved.
Mental Health Director Tony Kirkman also advised the board to look in other areas, including health insurance savings.
The county nursing home is looking into that idea, and was told at a recent meeting that another carrier could save about $300 per employee per month and expand the number of in-network medical professionals. If adopted for all county employee currently on the health plan, that could save an estimated $385,000 on premiums annually.
Kirkman also advised the county to look for higher interest rates on its current investments, and that less stringent pre-employment health screening requirements could also save dollars.
An increase in tag fees for pets is expected to raise some additional revenue starting in 2019-20. The county board is also considering a reduction in the mileage reimbursement rate for county employees.