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of Clare County

BOC Struggles with Rash of Revenue Ghosts

Millage Proposals Could Scratch Part of the Itch

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HARRISON – The Clare County Board of Commissioners met March 4 for another of its budget workshops aimed at finding a way to squeeze dollars from the unyielding current fiscal year’s “stone” and also forestall a similar dilemma from occurring next year. No small tasks.

Magistrate Steven Worpell came before the board to address a budget revenue line item error in the data he had submitted. Worpell provided documentation with his user name that showed the $260,672 he had entered on May 29, 2019, and stated it was not the $330,000 posted July 22 with the county administrator’s user name as being his submission. Administrator Tracy Byard was adamant that she had not changed that entry, so there was confusion and a bit of consternation as to who had actually changed the entry, despite the BS&A software’s capability of providing an audit trail of exactly when and on which terminal a change is done. Byard suggested that all department heads, when submitting their budgets to the administrator’s office, they check to make sure that the budget figures that result are actually the figures submitted.

Worpell said the projections he used took into account the reduced cases due to the changes in drug law, adding that reduced staffing in the sheriff department will likely see that projected revenue reduced even more. Byard clarified that she does not make changes to department lines other than her own administrative department. She also said she would be in touch with the software company to see if there is a way to lock out the ability of anyone outside her office to change projections once submitted.

Commissioner Mark Fitzpatrick spoke at great length about the discrepancy between departments’ projected revenues and what is actually realized. He also made an argument for placing budget adjustments on the BOC agenda for revenue changes, not just for expenditures.

Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis, speaking for her department, seemed to take umbrage at the implication her office was not being responsible in the manner it handled its revenues/expenses. She spoke strongly about how her office deals with cases as they arise, and those don’t happen on a predictable schedule. Ambrozaitis also noted the need for attorneys in the office to handle specific cases, and that it is not a simple matter of bodies being on hand to do paperwork. She exemplified the erratic nature of her office’s time requirements with a current case that required her to view six hours of multiple child rape videos just the previous day, and a case of child luring/rape in the City of Clare – all requiring diligent, meticulous documentation of evidence to ensure a “beyond a reasonable doubt” success at trial.

Fitzpatrick also suggested departments review their revenues and expenses on a monthly basis, and Sheriff John Wilson quickly stated that his department does that already. Wilson also stated that his department needs funding “today.”

Byard said she would be preparing four millage proposals to be brought to the BOC for review at its March 18 meeting: Gypsy Moth, MSU Extension, Road Patrol and Animal Control. The deadline for filing ballot proposals for the August ballot is 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 28. Treasurer Jenny Beemer-Fritzinger clarified that wording on the proposals would determine when millage could be collected, i.e., if it is noted for the 2020 tax year, it could be placed on the December 2020 tax statements.

Beemer-Fritzinger also explained that, having gone through the revenues to get an accurate picture, the revenues had come in at $113,000. She then said the expense side of the calculations resulted in a need to add $200,000-plus to make the budget balance. The treasurer said that if everything stays at the current levels, the projected ending fund balance would be $500,000.

“That’s not where we’re at right now,” she said, adding that she was not sure the sheriff department projected $1.435 million jail revenue would be coming in.

Byard said some of the expenses are not specifically known until late in the budget cycle, and noted that one of the expenses that had gone up was Workers Compensation, which is set by the state. She said that had increased by $56,000 and noted other increases were health care reimbursements and an individual’s claims.

Beemer-Fritzinger said that reimbursement line item was one she had been watching, and that it was budgeted for $186,000 yet had never come in for less than $300,000.

This all led to discussion of the high cost of health care coverage for county employees, and conjecture about making cuts to that perk. That, in turn, led to acknowledgment of the fact that combining quality benefits with the lower-than-average wages paid by the county is the only employee attractant the county offers.

It was also noted by Martin that the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission had increased to $158,000 and questioned whether that was double what the county normally budgeted for. Byard said it had increased a bit, and acknowledged that increase was not in the budget.

Fitzpatrick then questioned how the BOC could be budgeting when no estimate of that $115,000 was included. Byard said that shortfall had occurred as a result of believing that expense could be met through revenues, but that it actually had to come out of appropriations. Fitzpatrick acknowledged that it is difficult to anticipate that cost without having a “track record” of expenses for reference, and Byard said it will always be $158,000-something because it is based on the MIDC three-year target base of the county’s costs in 2010-2012. Byard and Beemer-Fritzinger also explained that the $158,000 cost to the county would be offset by defendant fines and fees.

Later in the meeting, Shari Spoelman, director of MSU Extension District 6, voiced her request that the board consider approving a millage for MSU Extension on the August ballot. There also was discussion of making the gypsy moth millage an “invasive species” millage, which would allow flexibility in dealing with various infestations. In the past, the 6-year millage had accrued more funds than necessary to deal with gypsy moths, and collection of the millage was discontinued. It now is down to on season’s worth of treatment, and it is time to replenish the fund. Residents have made clear what a terrible year 2019 was for gypsy moths, and there is an expectation on the part of the public that the problem needs to be addressed. Some, however, have noted the cyclic nature of the gypsy moth and believe its numbers will be receding.

Discussion again touched on the need for a hiring freeze as a means to stop “the bleeding” from the budget. They cited the need for accurate numbers; serious cuts; possibly hiring an independent financial person to provide a forensic audit of the budget.

Commissioner Dale Majewski talked about calling for tightening expenses for years, and how the BOC had been doing the same thing for years. He questioned asking taxpayers for bail-out money when a 5% or %10 budget cut is not enough.

Commissioner Leonard Strouse brought up the fact that Clare County is the state’s second-poorest county and suggested hiring a CPA as the county’s financial person, leaving Byard to be administrator of the building. He suggested the possibility of starting elected officials out at a lower wage, although he knew it would not be well received. Strouse said he would not support a millage unless the board could show the people that the board had done all it can to make things work. He added that, if he was going to continue to serve as a commissioner, he would serve for free.

Whether or not the BOC approves placement of any millage proposals on the upcoming ballot(s), if any are approved, those funds can only affect future budgets. The current year’s turmoil remains to be resolved. Kleinhardt described employee costs as the “elephant in the room” and said he believed that cutting employees will be inevitable.

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