Friday, Nov. 19

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Contested county budget barely passes

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[NOV. 19, 2004]  A sweep of the room and it was clear to see, no one was happy about it -- not the dozen representatives of the health department, not the representatives of other county departments, not the county board members. But after having a month to review the 2004-2005 fiscal year budget and many hours of discussions, the board slimly passed the budget, adopting it with a 7-5 vote.

The new budget does not include any money for the health department. A token figure of $1 fills the space under the health department and the tuberculosis sanitarium levies. These were the funds that were contested by the Logan County Health Board.

Other funds that did not receive any levy were the ambulance, highway matching tax and county bridge funds. Those were not contested.

A special finance meeting was called on Wednesday evening to permit the health board further opportunity to contest the zero dollars (changed to $1) for the health department on the proposed budget and to try to sort some of it out.

Board of health president Mike Rohrer addressed the board last month, at the finance committee meeting and again at last night's board meeting, asking them to put the health department's budget of $340,000 dollars into the proposed budget.

Turning down the current proposed budget would mean drawing up a new budget and posting that for 15 days for the public to view. It would put the county behind on the start of their new fiscal year, but they would just go from month to month until the new one was in place, State's Attorney Tim Huyett said.

Board members wrangled more than an hour in continuing discussion, which was begun when the budget was presented last month. They examined legalities of the means of cutting the health department funding and the possibility of cutting other expenses to come up with that funding

The finance committee began meeting in August to determine their budget. During that budgeting process, different departments and levied funds came before the finance committee to present their budgets.

The Logan County Health Department budget is set by the county board of health. The budget is levied, but they are the one agency that has never been asked to appear at committee meetings. Their budget has always just been submitted in writing and then approved.

This year there was a problem. It was a multistep procedure spread over several months that gradually cut the health department levee to $0 in the Logan County budget. It was not until about Oct. 14, a day before the proposed budget was approved by the board and placed on view for the public, that the cut was made known to the health department.

Finance committee chairman Chuck Ruben took full responsibility for not calling the health board president, Mike Rohrer, to tell him. As a farmer he had a lot going on with harvest and simply forgot to make the call. He was sorry for that, he said.

Rohrer has been challenging the legality of the issue from several standpoints. In brief he first cited the Illinois statue, which mandates that the county shall levy property taxes to fund the health department budget.

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Another challenge was made, questioning the process by which the funding was reduced in the series of finance meetings. Some of the notes did not indicate proper motions were made to do that.

And then there was apparently a plan to levy the funds for the health department but transfer the funds to another fund that would be used to pay the health department liability insurance and then transfer the remainder to the general fund. He cited a statue that says you can't transfer levied funds to another fund.

Tim Huyett was on hand to answer legal questions and county board chairman Dale Voyles also clarified much of the issue.

Huyett evaluated numerous legalities surrounding the health department budget as well as advised the board on procedures if they chose to turn down the proposed budget.

Voyles said that he wanted everyone to understand that tax caps are our main problem. Tax caps do not allow the county to levy any more than 27 cents. "The expenses of the county come first," he said. Those are now at the tax cap limit of 27 cents. There is no more to levy. We cannot give the health department funds we do not have, he said.

With luck, the less-than-bare-bones budget will see the next fiscal year end barely in the black with $200,000. Should revenues such as property taxes fall behind or get delayed, the narrow margin of funds could lead to difficulties during the year. It is possible after the first half of the year that the treasurer's office may fall behind in paying bills or the county employee payroll, Voyles said. And there could even be forced layoffs.

It is a tight spot to be in. Voyles stated at previous meetings that he hopes that the people will recognize that the board is doing all they can. The tax caps do not allow enough money to keep up with the increased expenses, such as liability insurance and law enforcement expenses, which have been exceeding the consumer price index or 1.9 percent increase that the tax caps permit. The county has been using reserves, shifting funds from one fund to another to keep up with those increases for a couple of years. Now there are no more reserves to pay those differences.

Voters will be given an opportunity in April to change future revenues. The board plans to place a referendum on the ballot to increase the sales tax. The funds generated by this would put the county back where it needs to be in the fiscal 2005-2006 budget.

[Jan Youngquist]

 

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