A Study in County Budget Preparation

by Chuck Schaeffer
September 28, 2009

Today begins a new focus on my blog. My primary purpose has now changed to focus on the political entities of Leelanau County, Michigan — namely the County Board of Commissioners and, to a lesser degree, the townships and villages of the county. 

At this time of year, Michigan Counties are faced with preparing their 2009-2010 budgets.  In these days of bloated government that never seems to contract as the economy and their numbers of constituents contract, tax increases always seem the best way to balance the budget.

The first effort was my attendance today at a “budget sub-committee” meeting of the County Board.  At the time of the meeting, the Board was still faced with a quarter million dollar budget imbalance.

I was first surprised that such an important topic had the attention of only four of the seven Commissioners: Watkowski, Schmuckal, Tonneburger, and Marshall. The remaining three absent Commissioners: Lautner, Shifflet, and Schaubwere noted as “excused”. Hmmmm. Commissioners are compensated for being Commissioners. On such an important issue, the 2010 budget, I would hope all of the Commissioners would make an effort to be as informed as possible.

Wondering about the definition of “excused”, I consulted the “2009 Rules of Order and Procedure of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners.” No where in that document, do we find a definition of what is “excused” and what is unexcused.

I then wondered if those absent Commissioneers were being compensated in some way, even though they did not attend. A quick call to the County Accounting department produced no answer, since the person who could answer “was not available”.  Stay tuned for an update.

As noted earlier, they still need to reconcile the budget shortfall, so I expected that there would be some significant discussion at this meeting to find a quarter of a million bucks.

The county officials that appeared to testify were Judge Phil Rodgers, Prosecutor Joe Hubbell, Emergency Management Director Tom Skowronski. Later on, County Clerk Michelle Crocker and County Treasurer Chelly Roush shared the microphone to answer some specific questions the Commissioner had.

All in all, the amounts of money at stake in the discussions by Rodgers, Hubbell, and Skowronski were minimal.

Judge Rodgers discussion primarily centered around the budget of the Probate Court. With the recent death of Probate Court Judge Joseph Degan, the County Courts have been waiting the naming of a replacement by Governor Granholm. So far there has been no indication of when Judge Degan’s replacement will be named. Judge Rodgers was “hopeful” that a replacement would be on board by January 1, 2010. The consensus of the Judge and Commissioners was that the budget should be discussed with the appointed replacement. Oh well, no money found there to balance the budget.

Prosecutor Hubbell was there only to discuss a $15,000 line item that had been removed from his budget. He explained that this item was there for when the County needed legal services of a “civil” nature from the Prosecutor’s Office. These services are “charged for” at the rate of $75/hour, far less than what is charged by the County’s Corporate Counsel. This year to date, less than $4000 has been charged to that account. Again lots of discussion about chump change.

Lastly, Emergency Management Director Skowronski appeared to discuss the practice of “buying back” unused sick leave days from non-contractual dispatchers in his department. He made that case that by buying back unused leave days, money is actually saved. The implication was that if employees were not compensated for unused days, they would take all of their sick days, resulting in over twice the expenditure — once for paying for the employee’s absence, and again at time-and-one-half for overtime for another dispatcher to cover for the absence. Although there were no specific numbers discussed, it seems a no-brainer to see that elimination of the buy-back would cost the County additional overtime at time-and-one-half. This, of course, assumes that Skowronski’s assertion that all employees will use all of their sick days (whether they are sick or not).

The Commissioners and County Administrator Eric Cline seemed to indicate that the buy back policy should be studied, and Cline remarked he already had some ideas in this area. But for now, it looks like there is no saving there. Do you suppose a new policy could be formulated, discussed and implemented before the budget needs finalization? And, this can only be applied to non-union employees, as union employees are covered by existing, contractual obligations.

The remaining discussion time came from Clerk Crocker and Treasurer Roush. The major take-away from their comments is that “fund balance” could be used to balance the budget. If you are not familiar with the concept of “fund balance”, that’s a term used by governments and non-profits to refer to what a profit-making group calls “retained earnings”. So, if a government spends less in a given year than than they receive in taxes, there is a profit, but let’s not be clear with taxpayers, let’s call it “fund balance” and not use that excess to reduce next year’s taxes.

To be fair, however, a fund balance can be a good thing. It’s a way governments can save for a rainy day (something the State of Michigan has tried and failed miserably at). The danger of “fund balance” is that what it really is, is an over-levy of taxes, and if the balance grows too large, shouldn’t the County consider a reduction in the tax rate?

So, stay tuned for the next installment. In my view, today, September 28, 2009, the County Board of Commissioners is still far from a balanced budget. The question is, how is the gap to be closed — cutbacks in services/staff, raising the County Tax Millage, or using fund balance?

As post script, Commissioner Schmuckal devoted about 10 minutes of the Commission’s, the audience’s, and some of the paid County officials/staff’s time to hear of a presumably recent trip to some of the formerly Soviet republics.  I kept wondering when and how he was going to tie his story into the County’s budget.  Perhaps next meeting?

1 comment for “A Study in County Budget Preparation

  1. jgillman
    October 2, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Great reporting on some of our local activities Chuck! As always there will be a mix of potentially decent ideas, examples of irresponsibility, and time wasting. Human nature and human variety I suppose… Government.

    You actually touch a good point however on how one person ostensibly in a position of authority affected so many others through a simple act. It demonstrates the imitable propensity of a single government agent’s actions to have BROAD effect on many others. Compared to an individual’s act affecting generally oneself, it really offers a real life lesson why we must limit the authority of government to necessary activities, and limiting overall consequence.

    Glad to have you aboard.. Great post.

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