816 North

Clay County budget lauded for savings, criticized for cuts

The Clay County Commission has approved a $73.2 million budget that commissioners say eliminates wasteful spending but the county auditor says cuts too much from important areas.

The total operating budget of $57.3 million for 2013 is $4.7 million less that what commissioners approved for 2012. Included in the 2013 budget are expenditures for a bridge replacement, road improvements, airport repairs and additional money for some outside agencies.

In a joint statement, commissioners said the 2013 budget, which includes a cost-of-living adjustment for county workers, represents a continuation of conservative spending while supporting core county government services.

“For the taxpayer, a smaller and more efficient government in 2013 should translate to the ability to cut taxes,” the commissioners said in a joint statement. “By taking a hard look at each category of spending, we’ve been able to increase funding by reducing layers of bureaucracy and unnecessary expenses.”

But County Auditor Sheila Ernzen pointed out that the budget cut spending for public safety, county elections, legal judgments and settlements as well as money set aside for unforeseen emergencies.

Ernzen also said in order to balance the budget for 2013, the commissioners will use $14.5 million of the county’s $19.7 million cash carryover balance.

“I am not sure if they intended to mislead the public or if they simply don’t understand numbers and relied on bad information,” Ernzen said.

For 2013, the property tax per $100 of assessed valuation will remain at a 13-cent general tax levy and an 8-cent levy for roads and bridges. In 2010, the general tax levy was 16 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Presiding Commissioner Pam Mason said the commission would look for more ways to save.

“We are committed to reducing the size of government,” Mason said.

Commissioners slashed money designated for departments they oversee by $8 million but increased funding in some areas of county government.

Commissioners added nearly $1 million to road and bridge funding. That includes money for a bridge replacement, 23 miles of chip and seal paving, other road improvements and new road equipment.

Funding for some outside agencies increased slightly. Northland Healthcare Access and Northland Neighborhoods Inc. will each receive $55,000 for 2013.

The county will pick up an 8 percent increase in employee health insurance costs. The county also increased funding by more than $300,000 for park maintenance, completion of grant-funded trails and improvements to aging playground equipment.

Commissioners set aside $612,000 for runway repairs and a weather observation system at the Midwest National Air Center in Mosby.

Commissioners also agreed to provide more than $332,000 to hire four deputies, purchase new patrol vehicles and pay for some capital improvement.

But Sheriff Paul Vescovo said that’s not what he asked for.

Vescovo said he wanted to hire additional deputies to work in field operations. But the money the commission approved would set aside one deputy to work directly for the county public administrator’s office and two deputies for the county detention center, Vescovo said.

“I am very discouraged and concerned at the lack of support for public safety by this county commission,” he said.

Vescovo said the county needs more deputies to address a rise in violent and property crimes. He said he will have to take spending from other areas to pay for the additional deputies.

“I am going to keep my promise to hire six additional deputies,” he said. “I am not going to back down or back off on that promise.”