After a sometimes-contentious budget process last fall, Piatt County board members seem amenable to getting outside help starting in 2020.

The board’s finance committee – made up of all six county board members – voted 5-0 on Jan. 8 to recommend hiring Bellwether LLC to help with the 2020-21 budget. Cost of the contract would be $12,000.

Bellwether Principal Bruce DeLashmit said the county board would still be in charge of budget approval, but that Bellwether would start gathering information in March for it to use for its financial planning.

The hardest part of doing a budget is knowing that you have all of the information necessary to make the decisions you have to make,” he said. “We’ll flush out all the homework for you. We’ll chase down all the details. We’ll have all of the conversations.”

DeLashmit said the firm would start by gathering financial data from 2018-19 as a reference point, as well as monitor the current fiscal year as conversations start on the next budget year that begins on Dec. 1.

He estimated budget talks to begin in June, would include discussions and input from department heads, and lead to a completed draft budget in September.

He said the three years of fiscal history that is compiled makes the budget a living, breathing document, which is not always the case, especially in smaller counties.

It’s more than something that just lands in a drawer. I know we have plenty of counties that kill themselves in October and November to finish a budget that goes into a drawer, and then they just manage claims. The budget never resurfaces,” said DeLashmit.

Bellwether has worked with the county in the past, mostly for fee studies in the sheriff and county clerk departments. The Bloomington, Illinois-based firm also has contracts with several comparable entities, including Fayette, Monroe, Hamilton, Vermillion and Mercer counties.

Agreements are for one year only, but DeLashmit said they have never had a county stop using them after a single contract.

Piatt County Sheriff David Hunt asked if Bellwether could help with a possible public safety sales tax, which would need to be approved by voters. DeLashmit said election law does not allow them to help promote it, but they could gather non-partisan data that could be used in a campaign.

Committee members felt the budget service could help the county, and voted 5-0 to recommend a letter of agreement to the full county board, which will consider it on Feb. 12.

I personally think this is good,” said County Board Chairman Ray Spencer. “I think it would be very beneficial to the county. I would be in favor of it.”

Fellow committee member Randy Shumard agreed.

I am definitely in favor of it,” he said. “I’m very interested in it.”

With a tight 2019-20 budget that does not include dollars for such a contract, committee member Dale Lattz thought the money could come from a contingency fund that has $30,000 set aside. Others felt the process could save at least that amount without drawing on other sources.

Either way, Bob Murell was on board.

I’m in favor of finding the money somewhere, because we need somebody experienced to guide us,” he said.

If approved by the board, half of the contract would be paid when Bellwether begins work in March, with the other half due later in the year, probably in October.