Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning will have to wait a while longer to find out whether he can hire 42 more employees to avoid running almost $3 million over budget this year. On a 4-3 vote, the county commission decided to put the decision off while it studies the issue during upcoming budget discussions.
Some of the four commissioners who voted to table the decision cited upcoming changes in the mortgage registration rules recently enacted by the Kansas Legislature as a factor. But those on the other side — commissioners Steve Klika, Ed Peterson and John Toplikar — said it made more sense to get started right away, since the hiring process will take most of the rest of this year.
“Delaying it is just putting off this issue,” Klika said. “My inclination is to say let’s get started,” he said, with the caveat that the process could be stopped if serious funding questions arose.
Those who wanted to wait, however, were leery of starting such a big hire while still sorting out the impact of the mortgage registration fee loss. Kansas Legislators recently voted to phase out the fee that is paid during the closing of real estate deals. Some on the commission have worried that the loss of the fee could prompt a mill levy increase. But because there were changes that allowed counties to reap fee increases in other real estate filings, the full impact has yet to be calculated.
Denning said the commission is “just kicking the can down the road.
“This doesn’t turn off the money clock,” he said, because the savings might not be realized this year.
Sheriff department cost overruns have been a hotly debated topic this year at the commission. The department has run beyond its budget the past three years and is on schedule to be about $3 million short again at the end of this year.
Overtime costs have been blamed for most of the problem. A recent county audit suggested the department could save $2.9 million by replacing sworn deputies in dispatch with civilians and moving the deputies to a relief pool for overtime — an idea Denning has repeatedly rejected because of safety concerns and because he disputed the numbers. Denning has said the overtime is necessary because there aren’t enough employees to cover the public safety posts.
Denning said he was encouraged by the commission to put forth the latest proposal, which called for replacing 20 deputies in detention centers with civilians and hiring 22 more deputies for a relief pool. The plan wouldn’t get rid of all overtime but it could eliminate the need for a cash infusion at the end of the year. However, only a small portion would be saved this year because after training it would be late in the year before any new hires would be on the job.
Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said he still had reservations about hiring more deputies, though he might be able to support the 20 new civilian jobs after studying the issue. Others said that giving the sheriff’s department more now would come at the expense of other programs.
And commissioners Michael Ashcraft and Jim Allen said they also want to look at how a new program setting guidelines about who should be held in jail before trial will affect the jail population.
Commissioners heard a presentation last week on evolving risk-assessment tools that could increase the number of people who are released on their own recognizance before trial. If the jail population, which was at about 700 last week, is reduced then fewer employees might be needed there.
However Denning said he doubts the new guidelines will have much impact. He added that his department shouldn’t cost other departments because the county could dip into reserves from an expired sales tax that were to be spent on economic development and public safety. A mill levy to support the sheriff’s office overtime, should it come to that, would only add about 96 cents a month to the average tax bill, he said.
Commissioner Jason Osterhaus said he had no problems with a delay. “Would six weeks really be the end of the world?”
Denning said he could live with the delay. But, he said, “It’s costing a lot more money the longer we delay and push this back.”
This week the commission will consider whether to grant the Johnson County Enterprise Center’s request for more money to make it through the current year. The center normally gets money from the county and the state, but state funding was eliminated this year.
The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal Thursday.
The proposal is for an increase of $250,000 from general fund reserves. Center officials also would like the county to waive a matching requirement for its $150,000 grant to the center. The extra money would be on top of the $332,000 the county is already spending on the center this year.
The center has cut its staff by 20 percent and is expected to spend down its own reserves to make ends meet, officials said. Part of the additional money would also go to moving expenses, since the center’s lease is up in April 2015.
The Enterprise Center works to develop new business in the county.