Gloomy county budget presented

Published 5:15 pm Friday, August 12, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Cassopolis Vigilant
CASSOPOLIS - Structural revenue problems complicated by Michigan's budget crisis are rapidly bringing Cass County's simmering fiscal woes to a boil.
In what Board of Commissioners Chairman Robert Wagel called a "somber" assessment Thursday night, County Administrator Terry Proctor delivered a proposed 2005-06 budget balanced at $15,720,309 only by draining more than half a million dollars from a $2.2 million reserve and eliminating seven positions from six departments. Four are full-time. Three are part-time.
The 391-page document also contains a reduction in hours from full-time to 20 to 24 hours a week for six positions spread over six departments.
Department funding requests outstripped projected revenue by $1.7 million, Proctor reported after devoting May, June and July to reviewing requests.
Proctor attributed expense problems to public and employee expectations.
To shrink Cass County's workforce to a "sustainable level," Proctor proposes:
Continuing to freeze hiring. Do not replace anyone who leaves a position that must be eliminated in the next 12 to 15 months.
Offer early retirement and do not replace those who retire.
Replace positions with contractors wherever practical.
Benefits, especially health insurance, loom large in the expense problem.
The first employee group to move to the new plan was the general union in 2003.
Woodlands Behavioral Healthcare Network, the community mental health agency, became the second group to move in 2004.
Commissioners then voted to shift the non-union and elected officials group as of Sept. 1.
Coverage for Sheriff's Office union employees remains in arbitration.
In spite of tax limitation, however, Cass County government grows in some areas due to federal grants financing new programs.
For example, three-year COPS grants provided more road deputies and school officers. Grants funded Family Drug Court and Building Restorative Communities program for juveniles. Homeland security grants purchased training and equipment.
Growth is also a function of voter-approved special property tax millages, such as voters at last August's primary approving .75 mill for four years for drug enforcement, particularly methamphetamine, and boosted the Council on Aging from a half-mill to one mill, also for four years.
Conversely, voters rejected two millage requests for county parks.
Other past revenue sources, such as state revenue sharing, interest and jail rental, have been deteriorating for years. Michigan restricts raising fees and charges, which account for just 15 percent of general fund revenue.
Besides numerous meetings with elected officials, department heads, judges and commissioners this summer to shape his budget proposal, Proctor indicated he consulted Barry County, "which is comparable in size to Cass County, to understand why Cass County has less funding and more employees."
Finally, the impacts of revenue improvements and cost-cutting were calculated.
The county administrator's FY 2005-06 budget recommendation includes actual 2003 and 2004 figures, the 2005 budget, 2005 year-to-date figures and department requests for 2005-06 as state law requires.
Relying on the general fund balance and the budget stabilization fund indicates more cost-cutting and "reduction in force" will be needed in the coming fiscal year "unless there is an unexpected revenue increase at that time," Proctor said.
Ten "components" reflected in the document include:
Inclusion of no new staffing requests, although a clerk-register file room supervisor upgrade is included.
The Sept. 1 change in health insurance for non-union employees and elected officials.
The change in health insurance for unionized Circuit, Family and District Court employees was included an. 1, 2006. Negotiations with these unions for wages and health insurance have not begun.
Sheriff's Office wage increases for 2005 and 2006 and health insurance changes are subject to binding arbitration and are not included.
Eliminating appropriations to the Soil Conservation District, RC&D Sauk Trail, household hazardous waste pickup, general employee training, livestock claims, soldiers/sailors account and slashing the parks appropriation to $48,750.
Proctor pared other budgets, including: economic development to $500; Law and Courts security to $100,000; veterans burials; purchasing; maintenance; information systems; MSU Extension; vehicle maintenance; Board of Public Works; and Sheriff's Office.
Of the seven full-time positions designated for axing, he said only that some are currently vacant and should not be filled.
Of the hours reduction, Proctor said, "I will encourage the affected employees who need full-time work and benefits to transfer to vacant full-time positions as they occur."
A copy of the proposed budget is available in Clerk-Register Barb Wilson's office at the 1899 courthouse for public inspection.
Wagel, R-Wayne Township, discouraged detailed discussion until commissioners have a chance to digest the hefty document.
The county board is expected to focus on the budget at a meeting in about three weeks.