On the chopping block
Services, personnel eyed as county looks to cut $500,000 from budget
A budget deal promise to identify a half-million dollars worth of budget cuts across all county departments is moving forward.
On Monday, members of the county’s executive committee voted to formally create the ad hoc cost saving committee and ask county board chairman Jim Metz to appoint supervisors Chuck Zenner, Lynn Rosemeyer and Ray Soper to serve on the committee with finance director Larry Brandl and human resources director Nicole Hager to serve as ex officio members. The committee was also directed to bring bi-monthly updates to the executive committee to keep them up to date on what they are doing.
Prior to the committee meeting, Metz had appointed Zenner, Rosemeyer as well as Hager and Brandl to be on the committee. Zenner noted that with just two county board members on it, they See COUNTY on page 8 hoped to be considered a working group and avoid having to do the posting requirements. He noted that from the county board training done earlier that day, they were told by the attorneys that regardless of the committee size they would need to follow all the posting and open meetings rules.
Committee member Mike Bub said he asked for the issue to be brought up to the executive committee because he had not seen anything being done since the budget was approved last October. He said there were a number of board members who supported the budget based on that committee being formed.
He said he would like the executive committee to oversee what is going on. “This will be a monumental task,” Bub said. Zenner explained how their group had been formed and that they had met once. He also expressed reservations of if the committee’s task was to definitely find $500,000 worth of cuts to make or if that amount was a goal rather than a mandate.
Bub said he was very disappointed in how the committee was formed and that he did not think just two people from the county board should be involved in that process.
Zenner said any decision would have to be made by the full county board regardless since the committee does not have the authority to make any decisions on cuts.
Bub said he felt all 17 county board members had the right to know what was going on.
“I think it will be a very difficult committee to be on,” Zenner said, noting he doesn’t think the task will be easy achieve. “I think there will be some very tough decisions that will have to be made,” he said.
Bub said it was his belief that the county board passed a hard number in setting $500,000 worth of cuts to be identified.
“Unless you are going to cut services you aren’t going to come up with $500,000,” Zenner said.
Bub said the compromise reached last fall was to allow the short term borrowing exception once and then come up with the needed cuts. Faced with a budget gap last fall, the county board opted to take advantage of a loophole in the state’s levy freeze and utilize short-term borrowing to cover highway projects, freeing up the money to be spent other places in the budget. State law gives local governments the exception for debt service payments as part of the levy limits. In this case, the county’s tax levy included the funds to pay off the entire amount borrowed following the annual tax settlement later this winter.
Bub noted that there were people in the state legislature who were working to end that loophole in the next state budget process.
Metz defended his appointments to the committee saying that he wanted them to get started on it. He said he was not opposed to adding more people to the committee. Committee member Scott Mildbrand requested that supervisor Ray Soper be put on the committee. “I don’t envy anyone on the committee it will be a very difficult job. It will not be easy,” he said. “It will involve some things not very pleasant to do.”
“We have to live within our means,” Bub said, noting the importance of cutting to make that happen.
Supervisor Lori Floyd said it was her understanding the committee was going to look at each job and determine if there was waste in that department and look at each individual position and if it was not needed it would be cut. “To trim the fat where we don’t need it anymore,” she said.
“There may be positions that need to be cut,” Bub said.
Floyd raised the concern that the county did not have any sort of vision about where they want the county to be in the next five years to help guide what services they would want to cut or keep.
Supervisor Greg Knight spoke out against having too small of a group involved with making the cuts. “You really ought to have all 17 members involved in the process,” he said.
He asked where the process would end up and if it would go to the October budget hearing with board members being asked to vote on it without having knowledge of what exactly they are voting on. “You have to have buy in and commitment early in the process,” he said, noting this was important given the gravity of the cuts proposed.
“Every county board member needs to take responsibility to make this happen,” he said.
“Where does it end?” asked Zenner. He noted the budget issues are going to continue until the legislature allows them to do something about it. He said the county has been in a freeze for over 10 years and the short term borrowing is a tool the legislature gave them to address needs. He said the county could cut $500,000 but in two to three years be facing the same issue. “You are going to keep cutting services until there is nothing left. You can’t keep doing that forever,” Zenner said.
Bub said he wanted the budget review to be a formal, focused process and that if he had known a smaller committee was going to be the outcome he wouldn’t have voted to approve the budget.
Zenner said he felt it was necessary to keep the committee smaller. He said there had been an idea to have the entire finance committee do it, but seven people seemed like too many with scheduling.
“We have been kicking this can down the road for three to four years now,” Bub said.
Brandl said that $500,000 was not a set in stone amount, noting that it fluctuates every year with county needs. He also noted that over the years the county had pared down personnel levels to match the services offered. “If you want to cut things there is going to be a service cut,” he said.
He cautioned that it is also necessary to look and see how cuts in one area could impact another part of the county, noting that things are mixed and matched across departments.
Brandl said the county has been put in a bad situation with new construction across the county being static and shared revenues from the state being flat. State law limits levy increases to the amount of new construction. “We are in a big quandary,” he said.
Knight noted that the increase allowed due to growth is barely enough for the county to stay ahead of inflation.
Mildbrand suggested having more frequent county board sessions and said perhaps they need to set aside a half hour at those meetings for board members to share their ideas about places to cut. “I have $500,000 in cuts in my head that I am just dying to tell somebody about,” he said. Mildbrand paraphrased another county board member who told him that Taylor County needs to get serious about making the $500,000 in cuts or have a referendum and that they need to have one of the two.
“We can’t wait until September to have a referendum because we need more money,” Mildbrand said.
In the end, committee members voted to create the committee with Zenner, Rosemeyer and Soper as county board representatives and Hager and Brandl as ex officio members with bimonthly reports to the executive committee.
In other business committee members discussed the need for future management of the county’s nearly $20 million investment in broadband infrastructure. Bub said much of this has fallen to him currently as the committee chairman, but that he doesn’t intend to be on the county board for the next 20 years to do this.
He said the only way the county gets their investment in the broadband project back is by staying on top of the providers and contractors to continue to get connections to the county’s network. The contracts have the county receiving a portion of the funds from any customers that connect. The goal is that eventually the county will see broadband going from being a taxpayer expense to being a revenue generating source for the county.
The challenge, is that someone needs to do the work to manage those contracts and make sure the system is being maintained. Bub said the network will be finalized within the next few months and that they need to have a plan in place to guarantee that in the end Taylor County gets all their investment back.
Bub will work on a job description for the position, warning other committee members that the person with those duties would not come cheap.
County Clerk Andria Farrand noted one of the duties of a county administrator would be to oversee all county contracts and that this would fall under that area if the county had one in place.
“There may be positions that need to be cut.”
— Supervisor Mike Bub about the potential impact of the coming cuts
“Where does it end?”