YORK – The York County Commissioners, department heads and elected officials spent hours during a budget session this past week, going through each and every fund, and in many cases some specific line items.
It was tedious work – which came after months of formulating a preliminary budget to work from. The budget committee (consisting of Commissioners Randy Obermier and Daniel Grotz, York County Clerk Kelly Turner and York County Treasurer Megan Williams) asked for each department head and elected official to submit their preliminary budgets. The committee then went over everything, asked for cuts when they deemed necessary, the department heads and officials made changes where they could, and the resulting figures were presented during the public session.
“This process has been going on for a while now,” Obermier said during the budget meeting. “After the initial turn-in, it came to the committee and we are seeing issues now because we used $1.25 million from the inheritance fund last year to offset the budget, and now it is time to deal with that. We warned this day would come and now it’s here.”
In other words, the budget was created last year by off-setting rising expenses with the inheritance fund money. That leaves an escalated budget coming into this new fiscal year, one they will have to figure out how to maintain that level of spending or make big cuts to services.
“The projections, right at this minute, look like we are in the area of $900,000 over the lid we have,” Obermier said, noting they hadn’t included any lid exempted expenses in the budget as of yet.
An example of expenditures that are exempted from lid requirements is money spent when interlocal agreements are in place.
The committee asked department heads and elected officials if they left any money on the table (had unspent money in their budgets last year) to keep their expenses the same in this next fiscal year. If they emptied or exceeded their budgets, they were asked to keep expenditures increasing at or below 3%.
“Many department heads came close when they turned in their next drafts, but we still have areas to work on yet,” Obermier said further. “We won’t get all the answers today but we will get an idea where we are at.”
Obermier said, as an example, if the levy was raised by one cent, based on last year’s valuations, that would generate approximately $300,000.
“But then we have to go to the taxpayers to say why there was an increase,” Obermier said.
He noted that most of the increases being proposed were related to personnel costs. He said even a dollar raise for each of the more than 100 employees would equate to several hundred thousand dollars.
“We have to decide what’s sustainable,” Obermier said. “I know there are wants but we have to determine what the needs are. One-time purchases, like the motorgrader we bought today, are avenues for using money from the inheritance fund. Right now, the inheritance fund is sitting at about $6 million. Last year we used $1.25 million from that fund to offset expenses and it built back up, but is that sustainable? No. Because the legislature and now the governor are after it (proposing to end it in Nebraska) and it will come to an end someday in the future. For today, we are asking for ideas. We are here to have an open discussion among the board, department heads and officials.”
He said the committee had initially included an increase in money to be placed in the reserve fund – jumping it from $500,000 to $750,000, but he was willing to pare that back to $500,000 if the board agreed. He explained how the reserve fund is used to help pay bills, if needed, when the county’s cash flow is lower (during certain times of year when tax collections are not taking place).
“We need a reserve but we could pare that back as we have been getting by,” Obermier said.
“I agree,” Grotz said. “We do want to build that up but I agree with what you said. “Last year, we used $1.2 million from inheritance to supplement our revenues – I don’t see us doing that again, but we could use a smaller amount to build up the cash reserves.”
“Do the board members have any questions about the preliminary budget we’ve given you?” Obermier asked.
“Philosophically, I do not support using ARPA or inheritance money for funds that are ongoing, such as paying salaries,” said Commissioner Woody Ziegler. “That would be like me taking my savings to pay regular bills, and then the savings are depleted.”
“As far as what this board can do is focus on the end numbers when it comes to elected officials’ budgets,” Obermier reminded the commissioners. “The only line we have is the bottom line. We have to leave elected officials the money to do their jobs.”
“I know some departments have asked for additional staff,” Grotz said. “In our conversations, a pretty good need would have to be justified with what we are facing. If there is a case to be made, we can certainly hear it.”
York County Assessor Kurt Bulgrin noted that a great unknown for all the fund budgets is the cost of insurance, as it isn’t set until late in the calendar year and kicks in January. The county’s fiscal year runs July to July.
“When I asked other assessors how they handle insurance, five of the six I talked to said insurance doesn’t come out of their budgets but rather the general fund,” Bulgrin said. “Granted, that’s shifting an expense from one fund to another, but if it was formulated that way, big changes wouldn’t break individual budgets.”
Obermier said the thinking behind how it is done now is based on the fact individual department heads have a better read on their staff members (such as if they are going to take the insurance and what types of insurance they would enroll in, to better gauge the expense).
“I understand that, I just thought maybe it could be applied better,” Bulgrin said. “The rest of my budget is just what it is, to operate.”
“Have we determined what the ARPA money will be used for?” asked County Clerk Kelly Turner.
“The ARPA funds are down to $1.8 million,” Obermier said, noting some of it was used in the last fiscal year to purchase gravel and some capital projects with the roads department.
“I just wondered if that had been determined,” Turner said again.
“We have not,” Grotz responded.
“How it will be spent has to be determined by 2024 and we can use the funds for the same scenario, with some capital roads projects, which Harvey (York County Highway Superintendent Keim) has been looking at,” Obermier said, noting the projects that are identified will have to be pretty shovel ready in order to make the expenditure deadlines.
“Like Woody (Ziegler) said, I think ARPA should be viewed as and used for one-time expenditures,” Obermier continued.
“But it has to be spent by a certain date, correct, or it has to be returned?” asked Turner.
“I don’t think it will be a huge problem to spend it,” Obermier said. “But we want to use it for lid purposes, that is kicking the can down the road. It seems like, this year, we have greater needs for computers as an example – maybe some of it could be used for that, to get some relief in departments like data processing.”
Obermier and Grotz explained how they asked department heads to lower their line item requests to the actuals from last year, when they could, while they also took into account amounts spent in departments which were understaffed and/or have positions that will be filled.
Considerable time was spent talking about the cost of running the county jail and staffing the law enforcement agency. Obermier noted there was a vacancy in the York County Sheriff’s Department again.
“You have continued to give raises to stay competitive with other agencies, correct?” Grotz asked.
Captain Josh Gillespie said yes, that was the case. “There are corrections officers elsewhere who are getting three to four dollars an hour more than here,” Gillespie said, “just as an example.”
They also talked about the need to provide agency-issued cell phones for deputies, rather than asking them to use their own personal phones due to legal reasons.
It was noted that the sheriff’s department used all of its budget in the last year and corrections had to be supplemented.
“I look to the inheritance fund for some of these things because we have a surplus in there that needs to be used,” Obermier said.
Regarding the county attorney’s office, CA Gary Olson said, “As an elected official, I am very sensitive in how we spend our money and we do what we can to keep the system running with cases, especially when you see it’s $60 a day to house an inmate. We’ve had a run, on significant crimes, and we are very conscientious about the costs.”
“The elephant in the room is the housing costs for inmates, as we are out of room at the jail,” Sheriff Paul Vrbka said. “We have shopped around for different agreements to get the best deal, but what we are doing seems to be the best there is.”
Olson said they have also been looking into more work release and home arrest options, when possible and feasible.
Gillespie asked if there had ever been any consideration of creating a regional jail with other counties. “It’s a large number and a new jail is not cheap, but you would also be able to have incoming money when housing inmates from other counties that are full.”
Obermier said he also felt a wage study needed to be done, for the whole county, in all departments.
Grotz said he had also heard concerns from staff about increased starting wages that have new employees making the same as seasoned veterans. “It is disheartening for an employee to find out a new person makes the same as they do after being here for a long time. We have been hearing about the discrepancies. The jobs are all different but we are part of one family and we understand that.”
“When we look at the jail budget, oh boy, it is not cheap to arrest them, prosecute them and hold them,” Obermier said.
“And pay their medical bills,” the sheriff added.
“When it comes to the jail, you are just banging your head against the wall because we have no choice,” Obermier said. “I don’t’ want to see budgets go up, but, sometimes there is no choice, as in this particular situation.”
“Our housing out (in other institutions because of being full) has gone back up,” Captain Gillespie said. “And when we are talking about violent crimes, there aren’t a lot of choices. We have no say in their bonds and it is a big problem. We can’t predict the future, how many people will be in custody or for how long or if they have medical issues. We held back on a lot of other expenses last year in an effort to just make it financially work, and the jail still came up with a shortfall last year.”
It was noted there are positions to fill for corrections and vacancies helped their budget last year, “but running an understaffed facility is not healthy either,” Gillespie added.
When it came to the roads department, Grotz said wages “always jump out at us.”
“We are looking at continued staffing issues,” Obermier noted.
“We are short now,” Highway Superintendent Keim said.
“It’s been years since we achieved a full staff,” Obermier said. “Yet, we’ve been getting things done. Is the staffing number still a realistic number we are reaching for?”
“Yes,” Keim said. “We can’t compete with the wages that are out there. If we can’t retain our employees, we are behind the eight ball and then who is going to take care of the roads? You have to take care of your employees.”
Of course, it was also noted that fuel costs continue to be an issue.
Obermier reminded the board how the City of York earlier asked the county to contribute $150,000 of the county’s ARPA funds toward a makerspace area in the basement of the city auditorium. Obermier said the committee kicked out that idea, saying, “We won’t have a problem getting rid of our ARPA funds ourselves. And the plans for the ARPA funds will be discussed further through this budget process.”
The commissioners were scheduled to set deputy official salaries and wages of department heads and employees, but that matter was tabled for two weeks so they can continue to work on budget numbers, as well as to allow time for a number of job evaluations to be performed.
“Where are we at, what is the final number with the budget right now?” asked Commissioner Ziegler.
“It’s now $1 million over last year’s budget,” Obermier responded. “Lid-wise, because we are held to a 2 ½% increase, we are $900,000 over where we need to be.”
Several weeks ago, a split vote by the county board members turned down an extra 1% in budget authority.
“I reached out to the state and learned we could go back and revisit that, if this board wants to entertain that,” Obermier said. “I want some insight, as I don’t want to put it out there if it will be voted down. But that’s out there as a piece of that pie.”
Grotz did some tabulation of changes/decreases made during the budget meeting, which he said brought the $900,000 figure down to about $453,800.
“So we still have a way to go,” Obermier said. “You guys go through all the numbers and let us know what you think.”
The next conversation, including the setting of deputy official salaries and wages, will take place Aug 22.
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