County budget scrutiny produces opportunity

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus

In what could be characterized as a rebuttal to Chuck Schulte’s pressing questions about the Houston County budget, various department heads took turns offering explanations about their budgets during the Jan. 29 county board meeting.

They addressed Schulte’s question about why Houston County’s budget is so much more than Fillmore County’s even though Fillmore has a greater population and larger road system.

The hour-long presentation can best be summed up by the county’s finance director, Carol Lapham, who said she learned a great deal by combing over Fillmore’s budget. She said they break down some of the items differently, and that there may be an opportunity to make Houston County’s budget more reader friendly, “in an easier format,” Lapham said. “It’s been enlightening going through their financials,” she said.
She also said the only way she sees the county saving money is to change the way the county does business. “My first thought was to look at salaries, but that pans out about equal. Perhaps it’s time to look at combining services,” she said.

On Jan. 15 resident Chuck Schulte presented the Houston County Board with budget numbers from other counties and questioned why Houston County’s expenditures were greater. He shared the following chart:

Houston County
2013 budgeted expenses:  $32,067,842
Population in 2010: 19,027
Square miles: 552
Budgeted expense per square mile: $58,093

Fillmore County
2013 budgeted expenses:  $22,959,094
Population in 2010: 20,886
Square miles: 861
Budgeted expense per square mile: $26,665

Allamakee County, Iowa
2013 budgeted expenses:  $20,665,290
Population in 2010: 14,330
Square miles: 639
Budgeted expense per square mile: $32,340

To address Schulte’s question, department heads made several statements about demographics, mandated services, road maintenance and other issues.
County Auditor Char Meiners started things out by explaining that even though it’s not an election year, the budget reflects expenditures for voter machine maintenance and a staff member’s salary.

Zoning Administrator Bob Scanlan echoed the sentiment by saying the way Houston County administers its feed lot program is different than other counties so it’s not comparing apples to apples. “A lot of counties go through their conservation district office so if you’re tracking dollar per dollar, you have to look at where it’s going,” Scanlan said.
County Attorney Jamie Hammell said Houston County deals with a lot more criminal cases, drug cases and child protection cases than Fillmore even though the staffing levels are similar.

Almost every department head had something to say, including veterans services, county treasurer, sheriff, county recorder, environmental services, human services and the information technology department.

“We’re doing our best, and within the last year the people in our department have realized the importance to tap every revenue source we can. We’re in some of the best financial shape we have been in years, although there’s no frills left,” Human Services Director Linda Bahr said.

Veteran Services Director Rob Gross pointed out that a $20,000 grant awarded to his office makes it look like he’s spending more, though a direct revenue stream can be attributed to the line item.

Andy Milde, IT director, said, “Our budget has been decreased like clockwork.”

Highway department
Perhaps most intriguing was County Engineer Brian Pogodzinski’s presentation on the highway department budget. The overall idea he demonstrated was that, yes, Houston County is spending more on road projects, but the county is also receiving more outside aid.

For example:
• Houston County is expecting $10.7 million in revenue for road projects in 2013; whereas, Fillmore County is expecting $4.8 million in revenue.
• Houston County has 38 “deficient” bridges, while Fillmore has 91.
• Houston County has budgeted $400,000 in 2013 for road maintenance (seal coating) to extend the life of the roads, while Fillmore has none.

Pogodzinski showed pictures of bridge problems the county has addressed. One image included frightening views of the underside of a bridge where support beams had literally rotted away. “We’re trying to get those bridges out of our system,” Pogodzinski said, adding that a lot of counties are going out for bonds to pay for bridge replacements and road repairs. He said some counties have gone as far as to change paved roads back to gravel.

He said, “The state says we’ve been doing a really good job of replacing and maintaining our bridge structures. We were in the bottom tier of the state in terms of conditions on bridges, but they’re saying Houston County has become an example of how to address such a problem.”

In conclusion, he said the underlying principal is to spend a little now and minimize the long-term costs.

The county board’s message to Schulte was that all departments and commissioners are sensitive to budget issues.

“We’re always working on the budget every week,” Commissioner Teresa Walter said. “We have lots of state and federal cuts, but there’s a lot of mandates. We are working on redesigning our departments; it’s a work in process.”

New county commissioners expressed gratitude to all the county employees, saying that they’ve seen nothing but a willingness to work things out. “I’m so proud of the people who work in our county,” Commissioner Judy Storlie said.

“You seem to be operating very efficiently, but I, too, want to hold the line on taxes,” Commissioner Dana Kjome said.

Schulte said the time was well spent and described the meeting as a “valuable exercise,” adding, “I, too, will say this: The employees of the county — I think you guys are doing a great job in your departments. I’m concerned about the rise in taxes. If we don’t start reducing costs now I don’t know what you’re going to do next year.”