Citing a trend of county government setting up spending policies it can’t support, new presiding commissioner Ron Schieber voted against Platte County’s 2015 budget during a hearing held at the Platte County Commission’s regular administrative session on Tuesday, January 20. Auditor Kevin Robinson presented an approximately $17.5 million budget during the hearing with no comment from members of the public or officeholders other than the commissioners, who chose to keep sales and use tax revenue estimates flat at the same rate as in the 2014 budget. They also suggested a 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for county employees.
The commissioners opted to set aside additional funds for an architectural study on the county jail’s basement, known as the futures area. The new budget passed with a 2-1 vote.
“I really appreciated the opportunity I had to sit in on the budget meetings before I came into office. I felt very welcome,” Schieber said, noting he was pleased by several of the compromises reached on the budget, including an agreement on the sales tax numbers, as he believed the 2014 increase in tax revenues was an anomaly and not an upward trend.
As such, Schieber said he didn’t believe the county could afford the 3 percent cost of living increase Robinson originally proposed late last year.
“I am thankful for our staff — and I hope this isn’t seen as a slap in the face — but we simply can’t afford a 3 percent COLA this year,” he said.
Schieber was also pleased to see forward momentum on tackling jail overcrowding, and later in the meeting, he voted to approve the architectural services agreement with Treanor Architects, a Kansas City based firm, to research options for renovating the jail basement.
However, Schieber also had several concerns about the budget and the county’s funding philosophies, a pattern of spending that sets up the county for either future budget and service cuts or tax increases.
“This budget permanently increases spending without any plan for whatever a future jail project might look like,” he said, noting that Treanor’s work would at least begin the process of nailing down project costs.
Schieber also said the Platte County Parks and Recreation’s community center projects more than doubled in cost from $12 million to $25 million projects, and thus doubled the county’s debt as well. He suggested parks projects “slow down” and money be funneled into a dedicated fund to pay down that debt.
“It’s like the radios,” Schieber said. “That was a problem that was kicked down the road without any sort of permanent funding identified, and I could see the same thing happening with a potential jail expansion.”
Schieber said there was still time to realign the county’s sales taxes to meet such priorities.
First district commissioner Beverlee Roper pointed out that the parks tax will be up for renewal again in 2020, and at that time, adjustments could be made, but until that time, the voters approved the parks master plan.
“I will not put my judgment ahead of that of the voters,” Roper said after stating she was no fan of debt and likened it to slavery.
The current commission inherited debt from their predecessors, she said.
Roper pulled out a copy of the jail advisory committee report, which was issued last summer, and recommended exploration of renovation of the futures area of the jail. She said she agreed with that portion of the committee’s recommendations, and noted the commissioners would be setting aside money to address the expansion.
Robinson cautioned commissioners against relying on allocations from the general fund to pay for building projects, as unforeseen general fund expenses could quickly drain that revenue source. Second district commissioner Duane Soper said the study needed to be done nevertheless, to determine the county’s next steps.
Soper also expressed some disappointment that the commission could not come to a unanimous vote on the budget. Prior presiding commissioner Jason Brown voted against each budget during his term in office.
“The budget was a lot of take and give, and in the end, we didn’t all agree. But I appreciate that you were willing to work with me,” Soper told Roper and Schieber.