After a four-hour administrative session, the Platte County Commission’s edited 2017 budget received approval earlier this week — minus a potential multi-million hit to the Platte County Parks and Recreation Department’s construction fund that will continue to loom on the horizon.
More than 100 people in a standing-room-only crowd attended the Monday, Jan. 30 Platte County Commission meeting with many voicing opinions on the proposed budget, which was posted in January. As reported in last week’s Citizen, a commission-recommended budget was posted on the county’s website on Friday, Jan. 20, as well as a notice from the commissioners stating that budget would face substantial changes by the Jan. 30 public hearing.
Platte County presiding commissioner Ron Schieber said the budget process this year was a difficult one, a sentiment Platte County auditor Kevin Robinson echoed. It was one of their only points of agreement for the hours-long session.
The commissioners contend the changes came about due to an approximately $1 million overstatement of the county’s cash carryover, repeatedly referred to as a “hole in the budget.”
Robinson said he discovered the mistake on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in his recommended budget released in November where he failed to account for the approximately $1 million lease payment for the county’s federally-mandated emergency radio system update.
The auditor’s budget included an estimated cash carryover of more than $3.5 million, as of Oct. 31, 2016. On Jan. 17, it was determined the actual cash carryover as of Dec. 31, 2016 is $2,240,460.
Robinson apologized for the error in the preliminary budget during Monday’s meeting but said he felt the commissioners’ proposed cuts were part of a political agenda and noted that the budget process this year was unprecedented during his tenure due to the changes presented the day the budget was scheduled for a vote on approval.
“These cuts you have presented today are on a balanced budget,” Robinson said, late in the meeting. “The cuts appear to be intentional and have nothing to do with that overstatement.”
Schieber said he was glad to hear this budget process was unprecedented because he’d hoped to conduct a line-by-line analysis of the budget since he came into office two years ago.
“This shows we plan to work with the officeholders and department heads to do consolidations where we can and innovations where we can,” Schieber said. “We want to run this government how a conservative campaign is run.”
Robinson presented a list of about $280,000 in cuts from the budget with almost $50,000 coming from the county’s general administration fund, including one full-time employee — the only full-time employee laid off in the cuts. Commissioners noted that employee may be able to transfer to an open position in the Platte County Sheriff’s Office.
Previously, commissioners had stated a desire to have all departments make similar staffing cuts to help make up for the $1 million “hole.”
“We realize that’s a real person, but we need to look at the long view,” Schieber said.
Potential personnel cuts to the Platte County Planning and Zoning Department reported in last week’s Citizen were averted partially by realignment of some employee salaries to the stormwater service fund, which also reflects stormwater work performed by those employees.
Other reductions to that department were approved, although building permit receipts are up.
Other cuts include departmental funding reductions to the county clerk, auditor, treasurer, recorder of deeds, public administrator, prosecutor and sheriff’s office. The Platte County Economic Development Council also faces a $25,000 cut.
The 2017 allocation of money to address a jail expansion into the basement “futures” area was eliminated and unused funds from the self-insurance account were also tapped.
Those officeholders and departments whose offices collect revenue from various sources were asked to look at ways to enhance their revenue streams. Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd transferred $50,000 from one of his department contingency funds to the general fund, and Platte County collector Sheila Palmer offered $50,000 from her office to pay for county mailings for 2017.
One fund that saw an increase instead of a decrease was the legal fund where $30,000 was added.
Schieber said he could not discuss the reason why this legal fund increase was necessary. The only other action item on the commission’s agenda Monday was approval of a contract for legal services with Ensz and Jester, a Kansas City firm specializing in government liability and employment law.
Most audience members present were there due to a proposed shift in the parks and recreation budget.
At 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27 Ron Schieber sent an email to Robinson asking him to cut the parks capital improvements fund by $2.75 million, reducing it to $1.7 million. The money would be transferred to the park maintenance fund.
The county is currently 16 years into a twice voter-approved one-half cent parks and stormwater sales tax. Schieber said his reading of the parks master plan adopted in 2000 when the tax was originally passed called for 10 percent of the tax proceeds to be set aside for future park maintenance.
Currently, that account has less than $1 million, but according to his calculations, it should have $16 million — 10 percent of the total collected — by the end of the tax in 2020.
“I think the folks that put this plan together were brilliant when they said some of this tax needs to go to future maintenance,” Schieber said. “A lot of people think I’m totally against parks, but when you spend this much money on parks, we need to be able to maintain them very, very well.”
Schieber said this was a discussion he tried to have for the last two years, but felt former Platte County Parks and Recreation director Brian Nowotny and the former district commissioners were uninterested in the topic. If voters reject an extension of the parks tax, the county would not have enough money in reserve to maintain its current park system, according to the commissioners.
“All we’re doing is setting this up so we have options when the parks tax runs out or when the voters say no,” Schieber said.
Robinson voiced concerns that the timeline for this budget transfer could be in violation of state statute for public notice, which calls for anywhere from five to 10 days notice. He suggested the commissioners withdraw the park proposal for now. This would allow any statutory obligation to be met, as well as allow the department more time to weigh potential concerns.
While Robinson and the commissioners both conceded that state statute was probably vague on actual public posting requirements, park board chair Ann Dwyer Sanders opened her comments by asking which state statute the county planned to disregard that day.
“I’m not sure that the department has had much time to look at those capital improvement projects to see what would be affected,” Sanders said, stating that projected sales tax revenues were set at 2013 levels and the parks tax is expected to bring in more than the budget states. “I think this year has been unusual in that there have been no prior public meetings to talk about the accounting; this is the first one.
“I have a hard time understanding, or, I guess, accepting, that the commission did not directly contact the parks director for her recommendations on where those monies could be taken from.”
Sanders said the parks department has projects outstanding and funding already committed to partners for capital projects planned within the final few years of the current tax. The transference of funds would adversely affect those partnerships.
“Bringing up something at 6:30 Friday for a 10 a.m. Monday meeting seems to be not transparent to me,” Sanders said. “It seems to me that you’re not involving the department that actually is affected and that’s disappointing.”
Platte County Parks and Recreation interim director Noel Challis, who was visibly emotional, said the department already had priority projects on its books for 2017, and the money remaining in the capital improvements fund — if the cuts happen — would not cover those projects.
Platte County second district commissioner John Elliott acknowledged that Challis didn’t receive much advance warning, and commissioners privately apologized to her. They later followed this with a public apology during the meeting.
Sanders said the transfer amounts to a 35 percent cut of the parks department expenditure budget. She described the commission’s transfer proposal as “back door” and suggested instead money be reallocated into the maintenance fund as projects are completed.
Additionally, any cash carryover could be placed into the maintenance fund. Schieber said he wished that was a process that could have started two years ago when he had first brought it up as a concern.
“I wish we could have started it a month ago when we started budget discussions,” Sanders countered.
Many of Sanders’ comments were met with applause. Theresa Emerson, a member of the Platte County Board of Services for the Developmentally Disabled, commended the commissioners for their action and said she has been happy to watch the park system grow.
However, Emerson believes the properties that already exist need to be maintained and kept safe.
“I’ve heard a lot of snide remarks and I don’t think it should be an ‘us against them’ situation,” Emerson said. “I think we should just work together.”
After more than an hour of additional comments from Platte County residents, including Weston’s Kirk Nelson and City of Kansas City parks and recreation commissioner Allen Dillingham, the commissioners agreed to delay the transfer. Challis and the parks staff have until the April quarterly budget amendment to craft a plan to build the future park maintenance fund.