The Piatt County board approved its 2019-20 budget and tax levy on Tuesday, but why it took two special meetings two hours apart is in in dispute.

Budget figures were unchanged from two weeks ago, when about 60 people turned out to express concern over the financial document and a 9.4 percent increase in the property tax levy.

The crowd was about half of that on Tuesday when a budget that includes $6.2 million in expenditures in the main operating fund – $387,890 more than projected revenue – was approved.

Those totals include a 38 percent cut in the state’s attorney’s budget, in addition to six layoffs in the sheriff’s department.

After the 12-minute budget meeting at 11 a.m., the board then held a separate, 10-minute one just two hours later to approve the levy. When asked why the two actions were not done at one session, County Board Chairman Ray Spencer responded that the format was determined “on advice of legal counsel.”

But State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades said that advice did not come from her.

“I did not know about the scheduling of the meeting until it was posed on the county board webpage,” said Rhoades.

Spencer did not elaborate at the meeting where his legal counsel originated, but afterwards forwarded an email to the Journal-Republican from Rhoades where on Nov. 22 she advised the order of business for the meetings, including tabling approval of the appropriations ordinance.

But Rhoades said that counsel came after the two meetings had already been scheduled without her knowledge, in order for the business to be done in the legally proper order. She forwarded the entire email that shows that, after giving advice on the meeting agenda, Rhoades stated, “I asked repeatedly when the meeting was going to be scheduled but no one from the county notified me as to when the meeting was going to be scheduled. Once again, I first learned about the meeting from an outside source.”

“I absolutely did not recommend they schedule two separate meetings,” she added.

The entire budget and tax levy process frustrated audience member Darlene Hoffman, who felt public input was ignored since no changes were made to the budget, and no explanation as to why.

“I find it very frustrating that there’s no explanation of how you came to the conclusion you came to, how you resolved, or if you resolved, the issue with the state’s attorney. I just find this frustrating. I don’t think this process works,” said Hoffman.

Topflight Grain Cooperative CEO Scott Docherty said the estimated $5,000 hit on the company’s tax bill as a result of the approved levy could alter the firm’s expansion plans in Piatt County.

Topflight has 60 full-time employees in several counties, and he said property taxes figure into the firm’s building plans.

“We’ve got a lot of assets in this county, and if there is not a plan on how to balance the budget, it makes us uncomfortable,” Docherty said after the county board meetings.

He also asked the board to sharpen its pencils a little more to get the budget deficit down and relieve some of the financial burden on property owners.

“I really would just like to strongly suggest that you scour this again and make sure there are no other areas that can be changed to improve the budget,” he said.

Both the budget and tax levy were approved by 5-1 votes, with Bob Murrell voting “no” on each. He had said in the past he would only vote for a balanced budget.

The appropriations ordinance was not approved, but tabled until Dec. 11 to give the board a chance to find additional savings or revenue enhancements for 2019-20.

The budget process began in August when requests were received from county department heads. A deficit that started at $1.1 million was whittled down through meetings that intensified over the last two months, including several finance committee meetings and at least three special county board meetings since Oct. 16.

The county’s fiscal year will begin on Dec. 1 and runs through Nov.  30 of 2020.