Approval for Cass County’s proposed budget could come as early as this week.
After Presiding Commissioner Jeff Cox presented the budget to the Commission last month, two budget hearings were held Dec. 5 and 6 for the public to comment on the proposal.
“Some of the main priorities of the 2014 budget proposal include bringing the county’s focus back toward providing essential services to its citizens, planning over the long term in order to meet debt obligations, and taking a holistic approach to employee compensation,” Cox said.
Cox will look to get the Commission’s approval on the budget during their regular meeting Thursday, Dec. 12.
The budget must be approved by Friday, Jan. 10.
During the Dec. 6 hearing, Sheriff Dwight Diehl made comments about the county’s budget for law enforcement.
Diehl expressed displeasure in the budgetary difference that the Sheriff’s Office had requested.
“We’re disappointed that we maybe didn’t get a little more of what we were asking for,” Diehl said. “We’ve had some cuts in years past and lost personnel. We’ve never been able to recoup those positions. Hopefully things might start turning around one of these days.”
The highlight of the budget factors in debt service payments the county will owe on the now-defunct Trigen experiment.
The budget outlines $175,000 that will be paid on debt service for the project that will take at least two decades to payback.
“Gross mistakes were made by the prior Commission and we’re the ones holding the bag now and having to deal with those,” Cox said.
In addition, Cox has designated $400,000 from the general fund revenue to go into a debt set-aside fund so the county doesn’t default on the Justice Center refinance to fund the broadband project.
“When I think what we could have done with all that money that was spent on projects the county had absolutely no business getting involved in, it’s hard not to feel angry sometimes,” Cox said.
Also included in the budget is $450,000 to pay for the November election.
Cox said in future years he hopes the county can budget half of the election costs in the year before the election to lessen the budget impact during an election year.
“As you are well aware there are a number of financial issues the county is currently facing which make this budget cycle especially challenging,” Cox said. “Poor decisions made in years past will take the county decades to recover from.”
Also included in the plan is a minor increase of county employee benefits, but no salary increases.
The proposed budget increases employees from a L1 to L3 level in the employee Lager’s retirement program.
Prior to the budget crisis four years ago, employees had been at the L6 level, in which Cox described as a “mid-level” program.
The county will also be adding an additional $50 month to their contribution toward employee health insurance premiums and $50 a month to employees with a health savings account.
Upon passage of the budget, the county will also be able to hire a new maintenance and codes employee.
“Every department just about asked for more people but those are the departments, in addition to many that were cut, they were grossly cut and understaffed back during the budget crises of 2010,” Cox said.
The budget does include funding for a countywide employee salary study that Cox hopes to begin implementing in 2015.
The budget also includes a $600,000 emergency reserve fund that is statutorily required.
Cox specifically thanked the Auditor’s Office, specifically Deputy Auditor Kim York for her contributions to the budget process.
“I think it’s a good budget; I think it’s a responsible budget,” Cox said. “We’re doing what we can with what we have.”