Piatt County has a tentative budget for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

But the county board doesn't particularly like it, and only approved it Tuesday with the caveat that an additional $110,000 in expense be trimmed before final approval in November.

The county board finance committee has met five times in eight days as it struggles with an anticipated revenue shortfall. As it is, the tentative budget is about $519,000 in the red. The additional trimming would get it down to a goal of 9 percent in cuts that were approved by the committee last week.

The current fiscal document, which will now be available to the public for at least 15 days, reflects 6.78 percent in cuts from original department requests.

County board member Dale Lattz said he will only vote for final approval if the 9 percent goal is reached.

“We voted for a 9 percent cut. We're not there,” said Lattz. “Some departments did very well, some did very little.”

Fellow board member Shannon Carroll felt the salary increase request for the Emergency Management Agency director from $37,000 to $65,000 annually to reflect full-time status is “a little bit of a hangup too,” and is up for discussion. After 65 percent in out-of-county reimbursement, the salary increase would cost the county about $10,000 per year.

Bob Murrell voted against the deficit budget.

“It's not a balanced budget. Even the compromise of 9 percent is not met, so I'm not in favor of passing this budget,” he said.

Added back in before tentative approval were proposed furloughs for the zoning and county finance officer departments. The board felt it was unfair to impose those on just two offices, especially since those are one-person departments.

The county could give final approval to the budget as early as its Nov. 13 meeting, but may need a special meeting after that time to consider it.

The following is a summary of finance committee meetings over the past week.

Tuesday, Oct. 15

The county’s 2019-20 budget is still at least $730,000 in the red, and Piatt County board members have two sessions set up Oct. 17 in an effort to narrow the gap between proposed expenses and revenue.

At a meeting on Oct. 15, Chairman Ray Spencer said the current estimates are for $5.8 million in revenue versus $6.5 million in expense. Those numbers are after a list of about $500,000 in possible cuts to department requests was reviewed, with about $400,000 being endorsed. It was found that some of those items cannot by cut due to grant requirements and federally-mandated positions and costs.

Spencer asked board members if they still wanted to pursue a balanced budget or consider a deficit one for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

Randy Shumard said he favors a balanced document, but was not sure how it could be accomplished.

“I think we’re at bare bones as it is,” he said. “It would be nice to (have a balanced budget), but I don’t see how we’re going to do it with things we have in front of us now. Where are we going to cut that’s not going to affect their operations?”

Dale Lattz touted a balanced budget, saying a deficit budget could not be shored up by current fund balances. As of Oct. 1, the county does have $960,000 invested, but some of that is in earmarked accounts that may not be able to help the general fund, the county’s main operating account that has been operating at a deficit for at least a year.

“I’m not going to vote for an out-of-balanced budget unless I’ve got really good reasons to do that. I’m surely not going to vote for a budget that’s $700,000 in the red,” said Lattz. “If we vote for a half-a-million dollar deficit budget, you better talk to a local bank to get funds raised up, because we’re going to run out of money.”

Renee Fruendt said she also favors a balanced budget document, but admitted that “close might be the best we can do.”

Cuts that are already included in the proposed budget were reviewed. They ranged from axing $12,000 for summer mowing help to zeroing out a $1,500 increase requested by the county death examiner. Other cuts made from original department requests include eliminating two sheriff’s department patrol car purchases, saving $60,000; and reducing vehicle maintenance requests by $6,500.

Ideas for further cuts include reducing the maintenance staff by one, an estimated $33,000 savings; reducing health insurance costs, and/or possible furloughs in county offices.

On the revenue side, real estate taxes are already expected to go up in order to address the need to keep up with Social Security and IMRF payments. Leach said that would likely increase the 2020 levy above the 5 percent mark that triggers a Truth-in-Taxation hearing, even without an increase in the general fund appropriation.

Other income enhancements could include rent changes for tenants in the Piatt County Office Building.

Thursday, Oct. 17, a.m.

It would take 15 percent in cuts to bring Piatt County government’s 2019-20 budget close to being balanced. The decision on specific reductions – whether they be cuts in operating costs and/or furloughs and layoffs – may be left up to county department heads.

After Tuesday’s county board finance committee meeting, board member Dale Lattz generated a spread sheet gauging the gap between department requests made in August and the amount that could be funded by projected revenues.

That document was reviewed at another committee session Thursday morning.

Lattz saw his spreadsheet as a starting point for discussions, compiled because “I felt like we were going at a snail’s pace trying to get this done, and we need to get this done. I wanted to put up concrete numbers that can be discussed and rehashed, changed, whatever to get down the road on this.”

Requests will be sent to department heads yet today for their input, which is expected to be in county board hands by the Monday finance committee meeting. A special county board meeting is then scheduled for Tuesday at 9 a.m. to approve a tentative budget. Final approval is expected in November for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.

For his department, Sheriff David Hunt said 15 percent in cuts would have to come in the form of personnel.

“You’re not telling me to lay off, but you’re telling me to lay off. That’s really what you’re doing, because it’s a forced hand,” said Hunt. “I can’t operate a Sheriff’s office without an operational budget, so just come out and say it. Don’t beat around the bush.”

All departments may not be treated equally in the budget trimming, mostly due to constitutionally-mandated officers and grants that fully fund some services.

In addition, State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades pointed out that a reduction in expense would also trim revenue, since state and federal reimbursements would drop. One example is the Emergency Management Agency director, where 65 percent of the salary is paid for by three funding mechanisms outside of the county.

It was also pointed out that balanced budgets of recent years have not resulted in balanced spending in reality, such as 2017-18, where the county spent about $1 million more than was brought in despite a balanced budget.

“This is my opinion, but if it took six or seven years to get to this point, it’s not really reasonable to make up that deficit in one year,” added Hunt. “I can see making cuts. I’m willing to make cuts. But we should do that over a two- or three-year period.”

County board member Shannon Carroll agreed somewhat, and wondered if there could be a multi-year approach to cuts instead of requiring so much in one year.

“Fifteen percent is actually what is needed, but what is the compromise of time frame? Could it be 5 percent times three? But then we’re working with an unbalanced budget, so it’s a tug of war,” said Carroll.

Department cuts that have already been volunteered or suggested would be included in the 15 percent if that option is pursued. For example, about $100,000 is already proposed in Sheriff’s Department reductions, but that would still leave him with $280,000 more to reach the 15 percent goal.

County board member Bob Murrell pointed out that balanced budgets in the past have not been accurate markers of spending, and wondered if 2019-2020 would be any different.

“To me, it’s just a show,” he said. “There are no consequences if anyone goes over budget.”

Even the 15 percent would leave the budget an estimated $100,000 from being balanced. County board members hope revenue adjustments could make up the difference, including possible rent increases, reduction of mileage reimbursement rates, or having employees pick up more of their health care insurance costs.

County Board Chairman Ray Spencer said refinancing a $250,000 loan that paid for a courthouse roof and elevator rehab could also save the county a $35,000 payment next year.

Thursday, Oct. 17, p.m.

The Piatt County board is apparently willing to approve a deficit budget for 2019-20.

At its third finance committee meeting of the week Thursday night, finance committee members – which include the entire county board – voted 5-1 to ask department heads to each trim 9 percent off of budget requests prior to another committee session that is scheduled for Monday morning at 9 a.m.

Earlier that day, a figure of 15 percent in cuts was discussed as a way of getting the budget within $100,000 of being balanced. It was thought that revenue enhancements could close the final gap.

But after receiving input from department heads throughout the day, County Board Chairman Ray Spencer said most came to the conclusion that 15 percent was too much for one budget year.

“Everyone would prefer a balanced budget, but that may be too painful in one year,” said Spencer.

Department heads will now be tasked with coming up with ways to cut their budget requests – or provide convincing evidence why it is not possible – by the time the committee meets again on Monday.

A 9 percent cut across the board would still leave the county with a revenue shortfall of $400,000 to $500,000 for the fiscal year that begins on Dec. 1.

Monday, Oct. 21

Discussion Monday revolved around the Emergency Management Agency budget, which after grant assumptions still registered a $30,000 increase, about 60 percent more than the 2018-19 budget.

County agencies were asked to trim at least 9 percent off of original 2019-20 requests for this week’s meeting.

But Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson said the EMA is in a tough spot due to “financial irregularities” and what she said were falsehoods in mandated emergency operations plans filed by previous EMA head Jim Donaldson.

She gave one example when an incident summary was needed as part of the county emergency operations plan.

“He copied it from a training manual, and instead of saying Monticello, it said Center City,” said Dobson. “You can’t legitimately say that you have the appropriate response and the appropriate information before the state if this is all based on a lie.”

She added an estimate that the current plan is “75 percent wrong.”

County Board Chairman Ray Spencer said the plan also makes claims it owns equipment the county does not have. One example he cited is that the plan states there is space to store enough bodies in case of a mass casualty incident. Instead, the county has a small cooler in the basement of the Piatt county Office Building that can store only two corpses.

New EMA chief Mike Holmes also requested a salary increase from $37,740 to $65,000 annually to reflect the now-full-time nature of the position, and the fact that he is on call 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

“It doesn’t seem to be out of line with what other department heads are making. The 24-hour on call, 365 days per year is something I don’t think any other department head has,” said Holmes.

County board member Dale Lattz commented that the full-time employment status was never voted on at the board level. Spencer supported the EMA budget, but said a different salary is something that could be proposed, although another figure was not discussed.

But Spencer said the budget of $170,000 compared to the $57,000 recorded last year is necessary to bring the county into compliance before recertification in March.

“So the state is wanting us to come up to speed on it,” said Spencer.

“I am required to sign off on the county plan, and if it doesn’t meet the requirements, I’m not signing off on it,” he added.

Holmes expects a majority of his added expense to be paid for by grant funds, reducing the new expense to about $30,000. His salary receives about 65 percent reimbursement from three sources.

State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades said state statute requires EMA to be “adequately funded,” and that all federal funds for the county could be at stake if the county does not meet readiness guidelines. She said attorneys for the state emergency management system said as much in a conference call last week.

“They told me that, if you don’t have a proper EMA, we will take it over. But we want our money back,” said Rhoades.

She said that includes not only about $300,000 the state has sent to Piatt County for emergency operations over the past decade, but other federal funds that have nothing to do with that department, including federal lunch money.

Several county departments said furloughs and/or layoffs would be needed to reach the 9 percent reduction in budget requests asked for by the committee. For example, County Finance Officer Linda Leach said furlough days will cost her $5,000 in salary. Zoning Administrator Keri Nusbaum said she would need about 24 furlough days in her one-person office to meet that guideline.

Circuit Clerk Seth Floyd said furloughs were not an option in his department because employees are covered by a union contract approved in September.

“There is no furlough language in our labor agreement, so we would be reopening the contract that was signed eight weeks ago,” said Floyd. Employees were given a 3 percent raise in that agreement. The current budget proposal assumes no raises for non-union workers.

Floyd said more permanent layoffs are allowed, but that his office would have difficulty functioning with less staff.

One reason the finance committee did not recommend a budget Monday is they wanted figures to be updated after the most recent line items were discussed. Lattz also pointed out that it is a moving target since departments used different criteria to cut their 9 percent: Some took 9 percent off of last year’s budget, while others trimmed dollars off of their original 2019-20 requests that were made in August.

If the county board approves the tentative budget, it will go before the board for final approval at its Nov. 13 meeting.