(Read more in next week's Journal-Republican)

A first look at the county's 2021 budget draft shows a document that uses pandemic-related CARES reimbursements and implementation of a tort levy to come within about $81,000 of being balanced. It also does not project staff cuts, and reduces other levy amounts in order to keep the total levy increase at less than 5 percent.

County budget consultant Dustin Harmon of Bellwether presented three options to the county board finance committee on Friday: One projected a $240,000 deficit, the second one was a middle ground one with a deficit of $81,000, and the third is a balanced document.

Most of the discussion at a county finance committee meeting Friday revolved around the middle option.

“Any items that aren't labor (pay raises), you shrink things down but don't feel an impact to the budget,” said Harmon. “We still have cuts to travel but they're not completely pulled out of there.” Training is also trimmed to get to the $81,000 deficit version.

One budget cut discussed would include the purchase of just one new sheriff's department squad car instead of two. Along with the equipment needed to outfit it, it projects a savings of around $40,000.

Last year's budget included a $386,000 deficit that asked department heads to trim 9 percent off of their original proposals. Piatt County Mental Health Center Director Tony Kirkman said that any of the three options for the fiscal year that starts Dec. 1 ask for additional cuts on top of last year's action.

“The board tasked us with a difficult choice of making a 9 percent last year, so you're seeing a decrease in expenses,” said Kirkman, who said even the $240,000 option described by Bellwether as an “open checkbook” version includes cuts on top of last year's 9 percent.

“It's not an open checkbook. It's us trying to be responsible for guidelines you put on us in 2019. That (option) is in addition to what they are looking to cut here,” he added.

Quick calculations estimated the 2021 budget proposals would trim an additional 7 to 11 percent in expenses off of last year's approved document.

Kirkman also asked why all of Piatt County's $218,000 allotment of CARES money would go towards reimbursement of staffing costs in the sheriff's department and nowhere else.

Once Bellwether learned COVID-19 relief funds could go towards that cost, Harmon said it was selected because those dollars could then be transferred to the beleaguered Corporate General Fund, which is currently $1.2 million in the red.

“It's really the board's decision on where that money goes, but with the situation like this it's kind of hard to turn a blind eye to that,” said Harmon of the general fund.

A more extreme version would balance the budget completely, but would have “no travel budgets, no extra equipment, just cutting everyone out of the budget that is not absolutely necessary,” said Harmon.

After a contentious budget process last year that led to a budget deficit, the laying off of eight positions, and an increased tax levy, the board hired Bellwether to oversee the budget process.

One complaint from some department heads was a lack of communication from the county budget consultant. Highway Engineer Eric Seibring noted that, although his levy is proposed at $30,000 less than he requested, he did not find out about it until “five minutes before the meeting.” He also questioned the figures used, saying his proposal did not include extra revenue but what was needed to balance his line item.

The budget proposals include about $300,000 less in Corporate Personal Property Replacement Tax revenue. The new tort levy would bring in about $250,000 that could go toward the General Fund deficit. Other more dedicated levies would be reduced to minimize the overall levy increase.

Harmon said he used recommended pay raises from department heads in the budget. Committee members asked him to put more consistent figures in, ranging from zero to 2 percent across the board for the next budget meeting scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 30.

The committee said both the middle and balanced options would be reviewed, but not the one that forecasts a $240,000 budget deficit.