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Difficult decisions as county budget requests wrap up

By Brady Bauman

Budget appropriation presentations from county departments and entities to Riley County commissioners wrapped up last week, and there is no doubt that tough decisions are ahead for 2015.

Revenues are down, and demands for services are up.

While many departments asked for the same funding as last year, some need more to replace aging vehicles and equipment, and to pay for increased personnel costs. Health care costs are an issue, too. Some departments need more printers.

A hard winter and the snow removal that came with it required significant funding. Maintenance on old buildings continues to rise. The recycling and transfer station may need a new front-end loader soon — and those aren’t cheap.

Officials have said that Big Lakes Development, Pawnee Mental Health, and other health providers in the county are also hurting because the state opted out of the Medicaid expansion rolled out under the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

Those entitites still have people to care for, so more of that burden falls on the county.

And the list goes on.

In many ways, Riley County may serve as an interesting case-study in what happens when a county has a hard time keeping up with its own growth — especially while state revenues tumble at the same time.

Because of all this, the county’s options are few. Can they continue to cut services after years of previous cuts? Or do commissioners do something even harder, such as raise property taxes?

All three commissioners said all those options are on the table.

“There’s going to be really hard choices,” Chairman Bob Boyd said. “I mean really hard choices. Everywhere we look we see reduced revenues and huge increases. When I say huge, I say greater than 5 percent —  in a lot of different things.

“We have an increase in demand for services, and we’ve managed the growth so that we’re always just a little bit behind what we need to be, and we’ve been very, very efficient in handling people. Look at the lines at our (county) offices… we’re doing that all over. And look at our CIP (Capital Improvement Projects) budget — the unfunded ones — and we still have a lot, even though we cleaned up a bunch this year, and we’re hoping to do some more next year, but… I don’t know.”

But when revenues dip, Boyd said preparations must begin quickly.

“When we get a little blip that revenues are falling off we have to respond,” he said. “Right now. We have to maintain fiscal viability. We have to have reserves, the ability to bond and other things, and be prepared for emergencies.”

Commissioner Ron Wells said some budget items demand attention no matter what the revenues are — especially when it comes to infrastructure.

“There are certain items in the budget that get put back where conditions never improve or get better,” he said. “For instance roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Some of them can be pushed back, but when you do that, you don’t solve the problem.

“(Those problems) are going to be there next year, and they’re going to be more expensive.”

County Clerk Rich Vargo echoed Wells’ sentiment.

“Local governments are infamous for kicking the can down the road, because the emphasis is to keep taxes low to keep the levy down,” he said.

“Anyone can keep the levy down. It’s very easy when its the next guy’s problem. (But) it’s like Ron exactly said: the problem doesn’t go away.

“Just like your car, you can continue to drive it into the ground and not spend a dime on it, but it will catch you eventually.”

Commissioner Dave Lewis said the state hasn’t helped matters, either.

“We’ve also experienced the continued tax shift from the state,” he said. “We might not be paying state income taxes to the degree that we had been, but that’s being shifted down to local governments. Someone is going to have to make up those discrepancies.

“When the state starts cutting money that effects us more locally than anything.”

Lewis said the county has been doing its part in tightening its budget over the past few years, but there’s only so much to cut.

“I would be willing to bet that these two guys agree with me, that we’ve gone through budgets over the past two years very carefully,” he said. “I thought we were really, really frugal — and that’s going to go to a new degree, this year.

“People say they want to see lower taxes, but they never, ever say what they want to do without them.”

Vargo agreed.

“Everyone says, ‘Keep our taxes low, lower our taxes!” he said. “But now everyone is hollering, ‘Repair our roads! Repair our roads!’

“Which one do you want? You can’t have them both.”

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