BRANCH COUNTY — Budgeting for 2023 began last month for county administrator Bud Norman. Rather than “budget hearings” with the public and commissioners, he meets with elected officials and department heads in August to hear their requests for 2023.
The total for the coming year came to $16,569,074. Norman estimated revenues at $13,159,479, an increase of $787,181 over 2022.
A deficit of $3.4 million must be cut from requests to balance the budget by Dec. 31. Last year, $3.1 million was cut during the budget process.
Norman explained that, over the next three months, he would come back with reports on where he made cuts with the final “tough decisions” left for commissioners.
The county eliminated its two-tier pay policy in April. That raised the wages of employees hired over the past 11 years who had lower starting wages than previous hires. The county now provides one pay scale for all employees. The tier elimination was done to retain employees and find people to fill vacant positions.
Commissioners used recreational marijuana excise taxes sent to eliminate the lower tier. The cost for the Branch County Sheriff’s office, general government, Friend of the Court and 911 totaled $434,195. This amount is almost the total excise tax share.
Norman warned those revenues could fall in February, when funds are distributed. Predictions are local excise tax shares will fail because of more licenses and falling marijuana prices.
Decisions made during this year affected future spending. Sheriff road patrol staffing was increased to fill vacant positions. Additional funds of $769,216, was allocated to the sheriff for equipment and operations in 2020.
The county implemented a 2-1-2 hiring plan to allow new employees to start at a second-year pay level, raising payroll costs. Pay raises of 7.6% went to most employees on Jan. 1.
Because of fewer criminal cases and traffic violations, court revenues are expected to drop by $250,000. Norman told the commission the county lost $900,000 in jail mileage funding two years ago.
Chairman Tim Stoll questioned Norman about that half a mill passed to maintain the old jail.
Norman admitted, “It wasn’t used just solely for maintenance.” Prior commissions paid operational costs with the money. “We didn’t put a lot of money into (the former jail) because we knew that we had a new jail under construction. So a very small portion of that was actually used for maintenance.”
Commissioners noted the expiration of the mileage was a selling point to the public to pass the jail construction mileage.
Norman listed five departments that asked for increases in 2023 over their 2022 budget. The sheriff’s request was $769,609 for staffing, vehicles, equipment and the cost of the two-tier elimination.
District Court requested $157,823 more for salary increases and tier elimination costs. Probate Court asked for $62,920 for salaries and tier elimination costs.
MSU-Extension services again requested to return positions cut several years ago at $53,531.
Prosecutor Zack Stempien made a plea for $69,443 to make a part-time administrator full-time and hire his half-time investigator, now paid under a grant. I have made a direct request to commissioners last week.
Norman told commissioners he expected to cut that $1.1 million in increased requests to around $600,000.
The requests, along with the tier merger, employee recruitment and retention, presented “expense challenges” for Norman and the commissioners. Staffing accounts for 83% of the budget. The administrator said inflation raised the costs of materials and maintenance. Utilities also increased because of more computers and electronics in offices.
Norman will come back in the next few weeks with a “budget strategy” after he evaluates the requests and the ability to sustain them in future years.
One option is using some of the $8.4 million in American Rescue Plan funding as part of the COVID-19 relief package. “You can do it for lost revenue. I want to justify to you what is lost revenue,” he said to comply with federal guidelines.
The ARP money must be spent by 2024. After that, the county would need to replace it to cover recurring costs approved in the 2023 and 2024 budgets.