April 22, 2014
BY ROXIE HAMMILL
Special to The Star
The Johnson County budget is a topic that’s never far from the minds of most county commissioners. But with elections looming in the fall, it promises to be the center of attention this year even more than usual.
The commission kicked off its budget writing season with a workshop earlier this month. But even before that, there was plenty of talk about the lessons that could be learned from last year.
Commissioner Ed Peterson, who wants Ed Eilert’s job as chairman, has made the budget his No. 1 talking point, saying the county needs to look beyond a steady tax rate to maintain a high quality services for citizens.
Commission Chairman Eilert maintains that an improving economy will add more revenue without raising taxes. He also pledged that county officials would quit relying on reserves to fund overly optimistic budgets projections — a criticism that’s been made the past year by some involved in budgeting.
Meanwhile the county has launched an online budget calculator and public forums to get the public interested in how the tax money is spent.
In a year of shortfalls in the mental health and sheriff’s offices, some of the sharpest words exchanged at county commission meetings have had to do with the budget. Recently, for instance, Sheriff Frank Denning pushed back at suggestions that the commission involve itself in day-to-day spending decisions of his department, saying, “…if you attempt to do a takeover, then I’ll be standing at the gate.”
Before that, two members of the former mental health governing board accused the county manager’s office of urging them to use inaccurate numbers in their budgets — an assertion the manager’s office denied. The mental health center ended up in the red at the end of last year, requiring a bailout of $520,911.
In both those cases, department representatives said they had been asked by the commission to present budget numbers that were rosier than reality. Denning said he did so with the understanding that the shortfall would be made up for at the end of the year with reserves.
Denning said he agreed to go into the year short-funded, “in an effort to be a team player,” for three years. But the lack of staff led to so much overtime that he had to come back and ask for reserves to cover about a $4 million shortfall, he said.
Eilert acknowledges that the county management has relied on reserves to close end-of-the-year funding gaps in the past.
“That process has been changing and needs to change to the extent that it should not and will not continue,” he said in a recent interview. “The budget should be fully presented,” at the upcoming spring budget meetings, he said.
During one uncomfortable meeting with the sheriff, Eilert suggested the commission might consider approval or disapproval of individual items in Denning’s budget. It was during that meeting that Denning made his “standing at the gate” comment.
That exchange points out another aspect of the budget battles of the past year — separation of power.
As an elected official, Denning said he has ultimate control of how to spend money within the sheriff’s department. The commission sets the dollar amount, but how it is spent is up to the sheriff, he said. That allows him to move money within his budget to balance spending when expenses come in higher or lower than expected, he said.
Although Eilert suggested at the time he might look into more commission involvement in Denning’s budget, he now affirms that Denning has the authority to make his own spending decisions.
“We all understand that,” he said, adding that both sides need to keep talking about budget-saving alternatives.
In the mental health center’s case, the commission disbanded the governing board, which had set the day-to-day spending decisions.
That, plus the sheriff’s controversy, has riled Eilert’s critics, who say the commission and Eilert in particular are overreaching the limits on their power. One such critic, Ken Dunwoody, filed suit on the matter.The lawsuit is pending.
Peterson said although the budget problems in the sheriff’s and mental health department are complex, the emphasis on a constant, low tax rate played a role. “This is an example of what happens when the only focus is on a constant mill levy,” he said.
Since he entered the race for chairman, Peterson has been saying the commission needs to take a more forward-looking approach to budgeting to preserve the county’s quality of life. Officials should look first to what each department needs, rather than start with the mill rate and then work backwards to make everything else fit, he said.
“We need to look ahead to what the community is going to be like,” he said. “Once we’ve identified the needs or wants, then we would try to find how to fund them.”
This year the county is seeking that input with a budget calculator in which residents can dial hypothetical funding up or down for each sector of county government. They can submit their preferences to be saved, if they wish.
The budget simulator can be found at http://maps.jocogov.org/budgetsurvey/