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Budget drama comes
to an end with cuts

by Ivan Foley
Landmark publisher

It was a four hour meeting with occasional drama. But in the end on Monday, the Platte County Commission unanimously approved a budget for 2017--with a caveat that one more item remains to be addressed and is scheduled to be taken up in a budget amendment in April.

At the end of an at-times meticulous line by line discussion, Ron Schieber, presiding commissioner, said: “That’s what we are elected for is to do uncomfortable things.”

As reported last week, the budget process became complicated in the closing days after Platte County Auditor Kevin Robinson admitted he had failed to allow for the $1.2 million emergency radio payment in the proposed budget. That realization was passed on to county commissioners just hours before their deadline for getting the proposed budget finalized and ready for online posting.

So in the closing days prior to Monday’s budget hearing, commissioners said they worked diligently for ways to cut some line items to balance the budget.

“The correction of the cash carryover (proper accounting of the radio lease payment) did not cause our need to reduce spending, it merely pointed out our need toreduce spending. It is the $750,000 in new expenditures, $500,000 of which is fringe benefit related, that caused us to have to cut spending,” said John Elliott, second district commissioner.

Elliott said some of the $750,000 was caused by past commission’s actions in the form of pay raises and increased retirement contributions, while some is due to outside factors including the new Platte County Drug Court, health care premiums and the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s office potentially doubling its fee for services to Platte County.

Schieber had a similar comment, saying: “The hole is here because costs have continued to escalate without a plan to cover those costs.”

Schieber said previous commissions did not take the time to develop a long range budget plan. He said Monday’s meticulous public discussion “was needed” and a good thing in the process and a good thing for the taxpayers.

“I want to have a plan,” he said, adding that previous commissions “didn’t want to discuss difficult things.”

The only budget-related item that was not solved on Monday is the commission’s intention to move $2.75 million from the parks department’s capital improvements budget to the parks department’s future maintenance fund.

The moving of money is not a cut to the parks department, which is funded entirely by a dedicated half cent sales tax. The move is a transfer of money within the parks department.

Despite the fact it is a move within the parks funding, the proposal was met with resistance by a park board member in attendance and other park supporters, who complained that the idea had not been presented to the parks department’s interim director until Monday morning. Supporters also seemed to prefer that more money be left in the capital improvements budget rather than moved to future maintenance.

Commissioners, meanwhile, repeatedly stated their disappointment that previous commissions have not built up the maintenance reserve fund in the parks department, and instead had focused on continuing to build new projects. The original parks department master plan, Schieber said, called for putting 10 percent of the half cent park tax revenues into maintenance reserves.

He said at the end of the current parks tax in 2020, according to the 10 percent stated in the original master plan, the reserve maintenance fund should have $16 million. As of now it has only about $5 million, he said.

Schieber explained there is no guarantee voters will renew a park tax of any type. And when the tax does come up for renewal, the current commissioners have indicated a desire to lower the park tax from its current half cent rate and focus a new sales tax on items considered priority needs, such as law enforcement.

Robinson, the county auditor, questioned whether the late notice to a department head of the intended move from one fund to the other met statutory requirements. Schieber doubted the statute applied in this instance, but commissioners took the safe route by delaying action and instead will address the issue in a budget amendment in April.

Elliott said he was fine with the delay, “knowing in April we plan to make the proper budget adjustment at that time.”

Robinson handed out printouts to a room full of folks who had gathered for Monday’s budget hearing. The handouts detailed changes the commission was about to make from the proposed budget.

Some of the items reduced include the county cutting its contribution to the Platte County Economic Development Council from $65,000 to $40,000; county commission cutting an employee from its general administration department (that employee may end up with a job that is currently vacant inside the sheriff’s department, it was said); new county commissioners saying they will decline the Missouri Association of Counties training and as such will absorb a $2,000 reduction in their salaries; a cut of $31,250 in salaries in the facilities department; a cut of $6,000 in salaries in the county clerk’s office; a reduction of $32,300 in salaries inside the information services department; a reduction of $6,622 in salaries inside the treasurer’s office; a reduction of $11,700 in salaries inside the recorder of deeds office; a cut of $23,000 in salaries inside the public administrator’s office.

The county commission has decided the county will not renew its membership in the Missouri Association of Counties, which will be a savings of $10,000.

Robinson on a couple of occasions during Monday’s meeting urged the commission to continue funding the EDC at its previous level.

Elliott responded directly to that near the end of the meeting, telling Robinson: “We have statutory obligations to fund and as much as I like EDC and we need them to succeed and need our sales tax base to grow, funding EDC is not a statutory obligation of this commission. And after we’ve asked our officeholders to go through and cut their budgets, to then give that $25,000 back to EDC would be irresponsible.”

Elliott told The Landmark in order to get to a balanced budget, the commission took $300,000 from the self-funded medical insurance account; $400,000 from the capital projects fund; and $50,000 from the contingency fund.

In addition, the budget does not include the previously planned $500,000 contribution to a “futures” plan for a jail expansion.

The budget does include an increase of $250,000 (including benefits) for sheriff department salaries.

The auditor’s recommendation of a 2.5 percent pay increase across the board for administrative employees was declined by the county commission.