816 North

Clay County budget boosts salaries and public safety, but cuts from parks and auditor

Updated: 2014-02-18T17:59:59Z

By GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

The Clay County Commission has approved a $73.5 million budget for 2014 that includes a 2 percent wage increase for county workers and more money for public safety, but sharp cuts for parks and the auditor’s office.

The total operating budget of $57.8 million for 2014 is about $300,000 more than what commissioners approved for the 2013 operating budget. The rest of the budget goes to county elections, an emergency savings account, road and bridge payments to municipalities, tax increment-financing payments, debt payments and capital items improvements.

Expenditures this year includes money for Clay County’s emergency management, road improvements, several outside agencies and a sheriff’s deputy tasked with tracking sex offenders.

“The highlight of the 2014 budget is the reduction in taxes,” said Presiding Commissioner Pamela Mason. “In September, we cut property taxes for the citizens of Clay County while increasing the level of services.”

For 2014, the property tax per $100 of assessed valuation is 12 cents for the general tax levy, a penny less than last year. An additional 8 cent levy for roads and bridges remains unchanged from last year.

“I think we saved taxpayers money and any time you can do that, that is good,” said Western Commissioner Gene Owen.

But not everyone is pleased. The budget reduces spending in areas including county parks and the auditor’s office.

Parks

Funding for parks dropped by about $900,000. Mason said that was the result of the elimination of a state transportation grant, less debt service that paid for several construction projects of trails, several boat docks, a marina and a golf course clubhouse.

The total parks budget this year is just over $7.5 million, which comes from the general operating budget and a use tax that voters approved in 2001.

Spending normally allocated to county parks was transferred to other needs, Mason said.

“Clay County is a wonderful place to live and to play,” she said. “We must keep expanding our horizons of our park system to include the entire county.”

But the cuts worry Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway, who said the county should not reduce spending on its park system.

“We have customers at our parks,” she said. “It is where government actually has an income producing property or income producing service. The other areas of government services just don’t do that.”

Ridgeway, who represents the portion of the county that includes Smithville Lake and other county parks, said there are several unfinished projects.

“There was information that we needed to spend less on trails because the trails were completed,” she said. “The trails are not completed and I am sure most anybody on our park board will tell you that our trails are not completed.”

Several docks, specifically those at Paradise Point at the Smithville Lake, need to be replaced Ridgeway said, and the county should fund a system to let park visitors make online reservations and buy annual passes.

County auditor

Commissioners cut the budget for the county auditor by $52,600 from the previous year.

“The 2014 budget cuts my staff in half, leaving me with one full-time staff and one part-time staff,” said Auditor Sheila Ernzen. “The result of these cuts is less auditing and less oversight resulting in less transparency in county government.”

Her department started 2013 with five employees — Ernzen, two full-time employees and two part-timers.

“It is unfortunate for the taxpayers of Clay County that their County Commissioners are cutting the office that is charged with alerting the citizens of government waste, inefficiency and impropriety,” Ernzen said.

Mason said money from the county auditor’s office was moved to the sheriff’s office, where it was needed more.

“I had prioritize and if I had to pick, it would be to hire a deputy to track our sex offenders,” Mason said. “There are so many people that I can afford to pay.”

Mason said she had no reservations about the spending cut because Ernzen is paid about $70,000 to be the elected county auditor but also works full-time as Belton’s finance director.

“So I thought to myself that if I had to make a cut what am I going to do?” Mason said. “Am I going to lay off somebody who actually has to have a job and we need that position or do I cut somebody who never bothers to darken the door and who is taking a full-time salary out of the taxpayers’ pocket?”

“Guess where we went?” Mason said. “We went there.”

Erznen said she performs her duties as the Clay County auditor on afternoons, evenings, early mornings, some nights, weekends and even holidays. Mason is playing politics with how the commission funds various county departments, she said.

“It is unfortunate that Commissioner Mason allows her personal agenda and vendetta to get in the way when she is making decisions that affect the citizens that she was elected to represent,” Erznen said.

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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