County looks to cut as budget process gets underway
It will be another lean year ahead for Taylor County government departments.
With concerns over potential loss of state revenues and reductions in other revenue areas, the county is looking to cut expenses as they move into the 2021 budget process. Members of the county’s finance committee on Monday reviewed the budget parameters for the coming year.
At this point in the process the committee gives guidance to department heads for them to prepare the departmental budgets. Those budgets go through the individual oversight committees and then the entire budget is reviewed over several days of hearings in September by the finance committee before going to the full board for approval in October.
For the past 10 years the county has directed department heads to prepare budgets with zero increase in operational expenses. This directive excludes labor costs which are decided at the county board level.
Committee member Scott Mildbrand proposed calling for an across the board decrease of 2% in the coming budget. He cited reports on a possible reduction in state budgets by 5% and expressed concern about that trickling down to impact the county. “We need to be proactive,” Mildbrand said, noting that he feels there are carryover funds that could be used to continue operations even with the cuts. Mildbrand estimated that the 2% cut in spending would reduce the budget by $539,000.
Committee chairman Chuck Zenner said he understood where Mildbrand was coming from, but was not sure about starting with a cut or that a one-size-fits-all approach was the best route to take.
There was discussion about the impact of replacing long-time employees with new ones. Finance director Larry Brandl said this probably would not have a large impact. It was also noted that there were a number of ongoing vacancies including in the sheriff’s department where they are down two road deputy positions and two jailers. “There have been some savings, but it also creates overtime,” said committee member Lester Lewis, noting there is a balancing effect.
“I don’t think we have a real choice,” said committee member Ray Soper. “If we go with zero we will need to come up with other sources. . . . We are not going to be able to tax ourselves to a zero percent increase.”
Lewis said the state concerns are more complex. While state officials have talked about a $780 million deficit, he noted that income taxes are just being filed this week and that the amount of revenue will increase.
“Let’s put it this way, it is not going to go up,” Zenner said of the guidance to give to departments. He noted that some will just not be able to cut.
Committee members had discussed reducing the number of budget review sessions this fall, but came around to saying that this year they may be more important than ever as the finance committee needs to work with the departments to find places to save money or increase revenues.
“Maybe this year the department can come in and show us different ways we can save money,” said county board chairman Jim Metz. “Maybe they can help us.”
Zenner agreed saying the department heads know their budgets better than anyone.
Lewis suggested the county may want to consider a wage freeze for the coming year including freezing scheduled step increases.
“We need to get some real money,” Mildbrand said, of the need to make budget reductions or increased revenues.
Committee members gave their blessing to judge Ann Knox-Bauer moving ahead with audio-visual upgrades in the courtroom. The project includes replacement of video equipment to higher resolution and better quality audio recording. The work will be timed to coincide with a state-funded project to install digital audio recording (DAR) capabilities in the courtroom to be able to record court proceedings when a court reporter is not available.
Knox-Bauer noted that while the need for the new equipment has been highlighted in recent months as court proceedings have gone online due to COVID-19 restrictions, they have been in the works for more than a year. The project was included in the circuit court’s budget that was set last fall.
Mildbrand questioned if the state was still going ahead with their project. Knox-Bauer said the contractor was at the courthouse two weeks ago and was set for the work being done before the end of the year. The project had originally been scheduled to take place in the beginning of March.
“I am all for this,” committee member Tim Hansen said, noting that by technology standards the 9-yearold equipment in use there is considered “ancient.” His concern was if in approving the work, the county would run into conflict with its own ordinance requiring the full county board to vote on spending more than $100,000. Mildbrand said he saw a concern there too. “That seems pretty clear, any transfer in the budget,” he said.
“I don’t think it would be an issue,” said committee chairman Chuck Zenner. He said the ordinance requiring board approval was for non-budgeted expenses that came up during the year. “It is already in her account,” he said.
“If it is in her budget, she doesn’t even need our approval,” Soper said.
Lewis agreed, noting that the highway department routinely spent more than $100,000 at a time for items in its budget without needing specific approval for each expenditure. In this case though, Knox-Bauer said the contractor said they would schedule the work to be done without a formal authorization.
Committee members voted unanimously to authorize the upgrades to take place.