County Budget Stays Stable - But Departments Push For Growth
By Beth Milligan | Oct. 10, 2019
For the third year in a row, Grand Traverse County administrators are presenting county commissioners with a balanced budget for the coming year. But while the proposed 2020 budget protects the status quo – ensuring there are no cuts to services or staff and offering cost-of-living increases for employees – it also rejects requests from several departments to add more employees in key positions.
County Administrator Nate Alger presented county commissioners with a first look at the draft 2020 budget at their Wednesday meeting. He told commissioners the overall $71.6 million budget – including the county’s $40 million general fund budget – was shaped by a “current services concept” that emphasizes maintaining the same level of funding and services. While the county’s finances continue to improve, Alger said he was concerned a future financial downturn could set the county back if it overextended its resources now, especially with the need to continue paying down the county's pension debt. The county's $96.8 million pension debt was 53 percent funded at the end of 2018, with commissioners allocating $7.4 million this year and $7 million in 2020 to pay down the debt. State law requires the county to reach a minimum 60 percent funding level on its pension debt.
“We are not looking to decrease the budget amounts or services provided, but we are recognizing that we don’t have the ability to enhance services at this time unless there were additional funds brought in by the service provided, or there was an extreme urgency to the position that could be demonstrated to the board,” Alger told commissioners. “That’s been a fairly consistent message (to department heads).”
Despite that message, department heads submitted requests to add nearly a dozen staff positions in 2020, including: an assistant prosecutor; a Sheriff’s Office sergeant, deputy, detective, and records clerk; a judicial assistant for Family Court; a secretary and network administrator in IT; a home chore worker for the Commission on Aging (COA); a parks attendant; a GIS analyst; and a public health nurse and personal health technician for the Health Department. Department heads also sent in 13 requests to reclassify existing employees. Combined, the staffing changes would total more than $800,000.
Alger is only recommending approving two of those requests: adding a Sheriff’s Office records clerk, to be paid for with funds through a joint agreement with the City of Traverse City, and a COA home chore worker, which will be paid for with millage funds. Alger’s recommendation continues a trend from 2019. Departments last year requested adding 20 new employees, but only 1.8 – paid for with Health Department grants – were included in the recommended budget.
Chair Rob Hentschel questioned why department heads would request additional staff in the budget when they had been instructed to maintain the status quo. “That just seems passive-aggressive to me,” he said. “What on Earth is going on here?” Alger responded that some department heads and elected officials – such as Sheriff Tom Bensley – “feel that they have a need for employees, they have a need to enhance services and improve services.” Hentschel countered: “I need a new boat, but I don’t (have one). This is not current services.”
“That is one of my frustrations,” Alger acknowledged. “It’s difficult to put a budget into play like this…the pie is only so big. So we either have to expand the pie, or minimize who gets to have a piece of it.”
County Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger told commissioners her request for a public health nurse will be paid for with grant funds – not impacting the county’s general fund budget – while the second requested position of a personal health technician would be partially funded through a grant. “Our requests are the results of us getting additional grant dollars,” she said. Hirschenberger explained that some matching level of county investment is state-mandated in order for the Health Department to receive grant funding. She added that while grant funding looks secure for coming years, if any positions were added through grant funding that later evaporated, the positions would be cut – eliminating the risk they would become dependent on the county general fund.
Alger said he was still in discussions with Hirschenberger about the two roles, but would likely add at least the public health nurse to the list of positions recommended for approval in 2020. Other department heads and elected officials will have a chance to plead their case directly to commissioners. The board set two study sessions – one for October 23, one for October 30 – in which they will hear directly from employees and discuss any desired edits to the budget before a final draft is brought for approval. Commissioners could approve the final 2020 budget as soon as November 6.
Bensley invited commissioners to send him any questions they had about his Sheriff’s Office staffing requests so he could be prepared for the “dog-and-pony-show” at the upcoming budget meetings. Alger said he anticipated department heads from the Prosecutor’s Office, Health Department, and IT would also be present at the meetings to advocate for their requests. Coffia requested that commissioners receive a copy of the written justification staff had submitted with their staffing requests so the board could understand the rationale behind those asks. Commissioner Sonny Wheelock cautioned his fellow board members that if they planned to support adding more positions as part of the budget approval process, they should be ready with a recommendation on how to pay for those positions.
“If we’re going to fund additional people, we either have to identify where the funding is coming from, or we’re going to cut something else,” he said.