Big budget cuts could come from changes in county organization
Members of the committee charged with the job of identifying $500,000 in potential cuts from the county budget got down to work Monday afternoon with a meeting with the airport, clerk of courts and child support department heads.
The committee has scheduled meetings to take place every other week and will be inviting in department heads to discuss potential cost savings or areas where revenue can be increased. Prior to the scheduled meetings, county human resources director Nicole Hager is sending the department heads a list of information the committee is looking for including asking for any suggestions they have about ways to trim expenses.
The plan is for the committee to meet with all the departments and keep a running spreadsheet of ideas or suggestions for cuts before going back through them to make a recommendation to the executive committee and the full county board at a later date this summer.
See COUNTY on page 4 Airport manager Fred Ebert was the first department head to meet with the committee. He noted that in just about every year, the airport returns money to the general funds in excess of what was budgeted. He said last year it was $25,000 returned compared to a $75,000 airport budget.
“You give me a number and we will do it,” Ebert said of any future budget cuts at the airport.
Ebert proposed that the county could save money on airport budget operations by bringing it back under the direction of the highway department. He previously was with the highway department and said the airport manager was about 20% of his total job. At the time, there was a full-time worker at the airport. He said that since that person retired they have handled the demands with part-time workers.
“I think it fits better under the highway department,” Ebert said, noting that the bulk of the work is clearing snow and ice from the runways and keeping the grass cut, all of which is something the highway crews are able to do.
“We are doing the same things, we are mowing the grass and plowing the roads,” he said.
He also noted that often there is no rush to get the runways cleared and that he will typically wait until it completely stops snowing before they will begin plowing. “This saves on wear and tear on the equipment,” he said.
Ebert also suggested having more selfservice systems at the airport rather than having someone in the terminal full-time. He said his position could be made parttime or even have times when there is no one at the airport.
He said that many of the pilots are self-sufficient in being able to fill up their fuels at the fuel cabinet rather than needing someone to help and that the larger jet planes such as when Sierra Pacific flies in those are scheduled in advance.
As far as increasing revenue, he said there was little they could do without building additional hangar space. However he noted that would be a slow return on investment rather than a short term fix.
Beyond his own area, Ebert had other cost cutting suggestions including returning the emergency management director to being a part-time position under the sheriff’s department rather than being full-time. “It should be something shared with other counties,” he said.
As far as the potential to share equipment or streamline purchasing, Ebert said that having it part of the highway department would help. He noted that when they have had the highway do work for the airport, the highway charges for all the work done even though they are all county departments.
“If it was all under highway it would be less of an issue,” Ebert said.
Child support administrator Michelle Kurth was the next department head to appear before the committee.
She explained that her office does not purchase much. “We don’t purchase anything other than envelopes, paper and pens,” she said.
As far as contracts, the department has a required contract for genetic testing. She said they have the choice of two labs to use and both have the same price. The other contract they have is with a language line for interpreter services at 72 cents per minute. Kurth said she felt this was very reasonable for the service.
Hager noted that one thing she discovered in this process was that the county does not have a single standard language line service, but instead uses multiple and said they would be looking to see if they could get a better price by going through one vendor.
She said as far as equipment, they have a paper shredder which is necessary for disposing of confidential documents. The office had four people in it with one part-time. Because the county reaches set thresholds, it receives 66% reimbursement from the state on everything in the department. She noted that for every $100 they would cut from the department the county would only save about $34.
The department also has a historical track record of bringing in more revenue than their budget expenses. She noted that in 2017, they brought in $34,000 more than their budget and last year they were about $12,300 more than the budget.
“That department has always done a phenomenal job,” said committee chairman Chuck Zenner. “It has always been a very phenomenal agency.”
The department has staffing authorization for 3.63 positions. Kurth said the average for similar sized counties is 3.29 FTEs. “We are right in the running,” she said.
The full time staff work 40 hour weeks while the part-time staff member works 25 hours with a combined caseload of about 800 clients.
“It is going down a little,” Kurth said of the caseload numbers.
The final department head for the afternoon was clerk of court Jill Scheithauer.
The department is the keeper of the court records and is where people come to pay forfeitures, fines and do passports. She said the office has three staff who work 35-hours per week. She said while they do not have overtime they will use compensatory time on an as-needed basis.
The one contract she said could be potentially eliminated is one for annual typewriter maintenance for $90 per year. She said they have one remaining threepart form that could just as easily be filled out by hand rather than having a typewriter.
Hager noted that there were currently six typewriters in the courthouse covered under maintenance contracts with the one in zoning on a five-year contract, while the others could be eliminated.
Zenner noted that with the county looking for a half million dollars in cuts, saving $90 per year wasn’t much.
As far as revenues, Scheithauer suggested the county could look into charging an additional fee onto the credit card payments on top of the processing fees already being paid by the users.
Committee member Lynn Rosemeyer questioned if there would be savings to bring two of the staff members up to 40 hours and bring the other down to parttime. Scheithauer said one of the challenges is that the office needs to be open throughout the day and that this requires them to stagger lunches and deal with staffing both courtrooms when the judge is in one and court commissioners are in the other.
“It is something we should look at,” Rosemeyer said of potential savings of switching to 40-hour weeks.
County finance director Larry Brandl said there is about a 12% difference between 35 and 40 hours. Further complicating things is that the clerk of courts is independently elected and her pay is set at what it is with the county not having a lot of say over the amount of hours she works.
Beyond talking to the department heads, committee members also discussed other potential savings with committee member Greg Knight proposing the county board being willing to accept cuts as well.
He suggested the county could go to a model with far fewer committees and with set salaries for board members rather than through the per diem pay.
Brandl noted that in those structures they typically have an administrator.
Knight suggested the county should be moving in that direction, noting it would be a multi-year process.
“You are going to have some pushback on that,” Brandl said.
Knight suggested the board should pass a resolution saying they are going to move in that direction. “It would demonstrate that we are serious about bringing efficiencies,” he said.
Brandl said that over time more counties have moved away from the committee system to an administrator. “We need to move in that direction,” he said, noting that it is typically only the higher population counties that have an elected county executive.
“I don’t support an elected executive,” Zenner said.
“I think it fits better under highway.”
— Airport manager Fred Ebert suggesting the county move the airport management under the umbrella of the highway department.