‘Blatant’ excess prompts review
County commissioners are so split on budgeting that they are summoning department heads back for a second round of hearings, scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. today.
“Most of our department heads do a wonderful job. Some of them really have held the line,” chairman Dianne Novak said Monday. “But we do have a couple of departments that are blatantly, in my view, out of line.”
Novak identified emergency medical services and the road and bridges department as needing to return for additional scrutiny. The sheriff’s department also will be asked to re-justify its budget requests.
“I just don’t think we should let some of these departments run away without really looking at them,” Novak said.
She said previous attempts to go over budget requests in detail had been contentious.
“Even with the department heads sitting here in that chair,” Novak said, “the commission is split on how that department head is allowed to spend that money. So you don’t get anywhere. . . . When you bring up certain things you can’t discuss them because things become very heated.”
Last year’s budget discussions similarly were pushed to the last minute after Novak called a special meeting to trim $165,000 in overtime from an ambulance budget that was part of a 1½-mill increase in the county’s property tax rate.
The situation is different this year. Under the state’s tax lid, the county will have to lower its tax rate unless it calls a special election or finds loopholes in the law to allow its total spending to increase above the cost of living.
“How often does an opportunity like this come along,” Novak asked. “I remember very well the battle from last year and I really don’t want to get into a battle, but I’m going to really put forth every effort that I can to save the taxpayers some money and to cut what I consider to be some frivolous spending.”
Commissioner Randy Dallke seemed to suggest that the time for going over detailed budget requests had passed.
He appeared prepared to instruct the county’s independent auditor, Scot Loyd, to go ahead and draft a budget keeping the tax rate the same and using provisions Loyd had found to get around the state tax lid.
“This tax lid scares me,” Dallke said, expressing concern that county spending might get caught in a continual downward spiral.
Commissioner Kent Becker seemed less decisive in either direction.
“I’d love to be able to lower the tax levy,” he said, “but it’s easy to look at the short term, and I don’t want to shortchange the county going forward.”
In answer to a direct question from Novak, who said
“I can sense you don’t agree,” Loyd seemed to side with Dallke regarding keeping the tax rate the same.
“I probably would not cut it,” he said. “There is waste, but for us to cut 2 mills out. . . . Do we want to worry about pencils and paper or do we want to worry about what’s really important for the county.
“Is it really going to drive economic development if we drop the mill levy, or is it the vision that we’re going forward?”
He termed the tax lid “a debacle.”
“If I knew the tax lid was coming off next year, I’d think differently,” he said.
County clerk Tina Spencer also questioned Novak’s call to eliminate what Novak termed inefficiencies in the budget.
“I can’t imagine the commissioners wanting to go line by line through the budget,” Spencer said.
At present, the draft budget being considered by commissioners still contains $97,500 to hire a county administrator — a notion rejected by voters in a non-binding election last year but apparently favored by both Novak and Becker.
Also included is more money for a future multipurpose building and money that could provide at least part of the funding for a reconstructed waste transfer station.