HARRISON – During the coronavirus pandemic, all the necessary work on behalf of the county’s residents continues in the various departments of Clare County government. In most, if not all, departments staffing is tight or bare bones: not the most beneficial situation to be in as the county commissioners are faced with no alternative but to further cut staffing in order to bring balance to the current year’s budget shortfall.
When presented for approval in September 2019, this year’s budget [Resolution No. 19-15, a resolution approving and adopting the County General Appropriation Act for Fiscal Year 2020] the two dissenting votes were cast by commissioners Dale Majewski and Samantha Pitchford, both longtime vocal proponents of fiscal frugality. Now, apparently, their feared fiscal result has become manifest. While compassion has driven votes to enable retention of longtime, capable and dedicated employees, Majewski and Pitchford have held fast to their position of “if you don’t have it, you can’t spend it.”
The BOC also needs to look ahead to the 2021 budget, which must be approved and in place by the end of September 2020. While Equalization Director Peter Preston described a projected increase in the county’s taxable valuation for the coming year, the county’s reduced revenues are still a reality. Compounding the problem is the near certainty that state revenue sharing dollars to the county will be adversely affected by the massive unemployment benefit payouts straining the state budget, resulting from efforts to suppress the spread of COVID-19.
The BOC has been meeting with increased frequency to get a handle on all the components of the problem, and to whittle out all that isn’t the desired result – a balanced budget which affords the most needed services to Clare County residents.
This fiscal reality has hit home in county departments, leading to what seems to be a sense of employment desperation. And, as might be expected in desperate times, people have taken to pointing fingers at other departments as sources of waste and/or expendability.
This is not wholly unfounded, as waste can be found nearly anywhere enough light is shone. Couple that with the frustration experienced by county department heads and employees who have offered cut/efficiency suggestions over the course of many months – suggestions which either did not make it to commissioners’ desks or simply received no response at all. (Yes, that is the sound of heads banging on desks in desperation.)
That lack of response led department heads Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis, Sheriff John Wilson, Clerk/Register of Deeds Lori Martin and Treasurer Jenny Beemer-Fritzinger to submit a letter to the commissioners [included in the May 5 meeting agenda] which offered suggestions for cuts, and disparaging the board’s actions not filling what they regard as essential positions. They also took aim at the county administrator as having failed to provide the BOC with a plan for moving forward, including monetary figures which would allow for making educated/precise reductions in expenditures.
In an effort to “obtain the maximum amount of reduction in expenditures while affecting the least number of employees,” the four department heads suggested: doing away with the entire administration department ($111,793.57); breaking the janitorial contract ($80,000); reducing payroll/bookkeeping by one staff member ($52,377); removing MSU Extension if its millage fails ($59,377); reducing Animal Control if millage fails ($26,000); and reducing courthouse security ($30,000). Also pointed out was the possible double-dipping/overlap of work hours in the public guardian/friend of the court for Clare and Gladwin counties, where a part-time salary is being paid to someone already in a full-time position. These items totaled $359,547.57
Other suggestions included charging rent for county building office space from entities which are not county offices; eliminating the county’s $10,000 portion of the airport authority; provision of a comprehensive early retirement package so potential early retirees could make an informed decision; and review the new employee prescription insurance plan to ensure it is a cost saving over the previous plan.
This was followed by a protracted disparagement of administrator Tracy Byard’s performance and the BOC’s failure to act on its one and only performance review, a review which the letter said is called for on a yearly basis under the administrator’s contract.
In addition to its urging the elimination of the county administrator office, it was suggested the BOC look into hiring a qualified chief financial officer to aid in budget and financial decisions.
Fully aware of the aforementioned letter, Byard began her May 5 comments to the board by reading a memo enumerating her own suggested list of cost reduction actions. They included:
“Contrary to what some believe, the situation with the county budget is not entirely my burden,” Byard said. “There have been many facts that have led to these shortfalls: our MERS retirement in which costs increase each year at no fault of the county; Worker’s Compensation has increased due to increased cases which have needed to be paid out; loss of revenue, specifically contracts that reduced the revenues in which key expenses were not adjusted and stayed the same.”
Byard said those were just a few examples.
“In addition, we’ve entered into lease agreements knowing the fund balance was in decline,” she said. “And we replaced employees knowing the fund balance was in decline, as well.”
“We need to start working together today for the betterment of the county and work for a solution, rather than pointing fingers,” Byard said. “We have all contributed to where we are as a county today.”
Byard then moved on to her cost-cutting recommendations.
1) Offering health insurance for two years to at least three employees eligible to retire, as an incentive to retire (a rough calculation shows an annual savings of $100,000). That would be predicated on not replacing those employees and departments restructuring and cross-training to fulfill work requirements. (Early-out retirement for those who have not met the years worked requirement, as the county would be required to make up the difference in the lump sum payment.)
2) Lay off the last two people hired into the county, saving roughly $80,000 and restructuring those offices to do more with less.
3) Lay off the payroll clerk for a savings of $44,000.
4) Lay off one of the part-time employees at the Animal Shelter for a savings of $25,700.
5) Eliminate the cleaning contract of $84,000 and pursue a modest cleaning schedule of bathrooms and hallways.
6) Eliminate court security, but keep in mind that bailiffs would be need for the courts while in session (that cost savings would vary, contingent on court staffing hours).
7) Leave the prosecutor’s office as is, with the recent vacancy yielding a savings of $60,745.
Byard said these cuts would be a cost savings of roughly $420,000 and that they are for an entire year, only to be calculated for the remaining five months of the current budget year.
“The above-mentioned items would be in addition to the board discussion items recommended for cuts today,” she said. “This is a start and needs to be done today.”
Her suggestions were met with “good suggestions” and “thank you” from commissioners.
After much discussion of the pros and cons of offering early retirement and its costs/savings to the county, along with the various recommendations/suggestions brought forward, the board closed out its 2-hour and 19-minute meeting by approving three motions:
Chairperson Jack Kleinhardt reminded that the last motion was not a chiseled-in-in stone motion, and that it all can change going forward.
“It’s hard decisions, and we don’t want to do it,” Majewski said. “But we don’t have a choice. Is it going to be permanent? We don’t know. Nobody can tell is it going to be permanent after this fiscal year. But I can guarantee you if we don’t do something and we go looking into next year’s budget – and we stay on this trajectory – I guarantee you there’s going to be substantially higher cuts at this next budget. You could lose four or five people – in one department.”
During Public Comment, the questions of multiple Zoom meeting participants were heard, one of which asked if the BOC only considered Byard’s cut recommendations.
“I took into consideration all the suggestions that were brought, and from each individual entity that suggested budget cuts,” Majewski said. “I took some from each one of them.”