Budget Hearing analysis

Times Observer photo by Josh Cotton From left, President Judge Maureen Skerda, Court Administrator Linda Critzer, County Commissioner Cindy Morrison, Fiscal Director Eric Hern, Commissioner Ben Kafferlin, Chief Clerk Pam Matve and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston work through a budget hearing held on Wednesday.

Three days and about 12 hours of Warren County budget hearings are in the books.

Now, the Warren County Commissioners have a lot of work to do.

Commissioner Ben Kafferlin said he wants Fiscal to “make a menu of what can be cut” that can be brought to a future work session.

Both Commissioners Cindy Morrison and Jeff Eggleston expressed concern that cuts are going to have to be made.

Kafferlin also expressed frustration at the “(disregard) employees who do not work directly for the commissioners have for their budget.”

“We can set a budget…. It seems that certain departments do not care.”

Kafferlin said that the commissioners would have authority to sequester funds or shut down a department that doesn’t comply with their budget, though he called those measures “extremely aggressive.”

Morrison said the county’s budget is going up but Eggleston noted that health care estimates that are not the actual numbers bring the commissioner’s budget back in line.

“I would challenge anyone to find a commissioner’s office that runs leaner,” Eggleston said.

Fiscal Director Eric Hern said the budget specifically for the commissioner’s office is between $2,000 and $3,000 overbudget.

“I think there’s probably areas we could trim,” Morrison said. “In most of the budgets, we have to task people to tighten their belts as well as ourselves.”

The Commissioners spent some time discussing the specific items in their departmental budget.

Both Eggleston and Kafferlin agreed to continue with paying a summer intern.

Eggleston raised the possibility of hiring a grant writer.

“This is the question that I am not 100 percent sure how to answer,” he said. “On the one hand, I almost feel like it should be our office” that houses and coordinates the grant writer in their work with other county departments.

He said the position could be full time or part time.

“Many counties have grant writers that work for them,” he said. (We have) been talking about this since day one. It needs to happen. (There is) money we’re leaving on the table regularly.”

Eggleston said he’d also like to be able to participate in more conferences and advocated for a higher travel line.

Kafferlin said that they’ve stayed under budget on that line because he hasn’t charged the county and stays with family. Morrison said she’s never driven a county car – instead using her own. Eggleston said he’s covered his own expenses at times as well.

“We’ve tried very hard, everybody has,” Eggleston said, to limit those expenses.

“I wouldn’t mind if you raise it,” Morrison said. “Make sure it’s a conference that you feel is necessary to attend and spend the money wisely.”

Morrison raised concern about the lobbyist the county has contracted with and said that Kafferlin had initially suggested that there may be alternate ways to find that “that never materialized” via an arrangement with the Rouse Estate.

Kafferlin said this board could certainly approach the Rouse board.

“I’m not in favor of contributing to fund this,” Morrison said.

Kafferlin said that the capital budget would be discussed and that “overall guidance” would be provided by the commissioners to Fiscal at that time.

He said it’s his hope to empower Hern to make recommendations before the final budget is enacted.

Here’s a look at the departments that presented 2018 budget proposal to the commissioners in hearings held on Wednesday and Thursday.

Emergency Management

Public Safety Director Todd Lake presented an emergency management budget at $200,000 with no significant changes beyond a wage increase as well as a 911 budget that includes $800,000 from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency as well as approximately $30,000 from Forest County for dispatching services.

Overtime issues in the 911 center were discussed.

“We can’t find part-timers,” Kafferlin said. “The solution to this problem (is) the 911 center having more part-time dispatchers.”

He said the “amount of training… is insane.”

Warren County Jail

Kafferlin said that the budget amount for 2018 was $3,185,000 and that 2017 actuals were $3,122,000.

“The only change I would like to see,” Warden Jon Collins said, “I would like to increase (correctional) staff by three. With the new systems we have in place, (it has) created more work but it’s good work. It’s necessary work” that addresses liability and accountability for the county.

“I understand the financial situation,” he added. “(I would be) extremely happy with just two. Two would be perfect.

“When you’re talking about our facility… We are the older facility. Our facility has eight different housing units. (It is) difficult to supervise like you would a more modern facility.”

He said the staff increase would not only decrease overtime costs but “will increase security and safety we definitely need over there. Everything else I asked for… It’s aimed toward safety.”

Eggleston said Collins has done a “remarkable job keeping the budget under wraps.”

Kafferlin asked what the county could “do to lower the number of people” in the jail…. Your budget is tight. There’s nothing to shave…. What can we do to fix the systemic issue?”

“Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about the population,” Collins said. “I think it would be a mutual effort with probation, the courts, just to maybe be more creative with the sentencing. I get it; If you break the law, you got to be held accountable.”

He suggested that some of the “short-term sentences” could “be better served” via community service or house arrest.

“I will do my best,” Collins said, “to stick wit or stay below what you folks say is necessary.”

He said that staff makes the best decisions possible with the county’s position in mind.

Juvenile Probation

Director Michael Grubbs said that they are on budget for gas and oil and are going to go over on overtime but may be able to cover the gap through random moment time study funds – a federal stream – that have come in higher than expected. He said that the department is implementing new assessment tools as well as a mental health assessment tool that are aimed at “trying to find the primary driver behind a juvenile’s crime. We are really working at it.” He added that the number of referrals to this point in 2018 is the same as entirety of 2017 but noted that placements are down compared to last year.

Adult Probation

Kafferlin said their total budget for 2018 was $776,500, a $77,000 increase from the 2017 budget. He said that the department is looking to purchase vehicles outright rather than lease. On overtime, Carl McKee, the office’s director, said “we’re kind of right on par with that. (We’ve) reduced our overtime costs.” McKee walked the commissioners through some initiates and programming the department runs and outlined a significant change relative to fee collection. He said that civil liberties groups are pushing for “a more individual process in terms of the contempt hearing” for failure to pay fines and costs. “What they’re saying, if you make less than 125 percent of the poverty level, the court can’t make you pay anything,” McKee said, though he noted that the court could “perhaps find a smaller payment. Fiscal Director Eric Hern said that has resulted in a $45,000 monthly collection through the first half of the year as a $30,000 monthly collection since. “That’s a lot of lost revenue to the county,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get it up where it was,” McKee said.

Planning & Zoning

Kafferlin said that the 2018 budget for that office is $238,357 which is “decreased significantly from 2017.”

Assessment

Chief Assessor Karen Beardsley, who is retiring in the coming days, noted that the commissioners “have some big appeals that are outstanding…. (There are) going to be some heavy losses in Warren County. Our judges are not assessment friendly. It’s not a happy picture.” Regarding the department’s budget, she said “there’s really no fluff in here that I can see.” She noted that “our fees are old and could go up” and recommended that the commissioners consider a fee for the county’s assessment data that is available online.

Coroner

Deputy Coroner Tony Chimenti said that the office’s one capital request is a vehicle that would permit transports of deceased individuals. “To be respectful to the deceased, to the families, (we) need something we can transport conveniently for everyone.” Discussion on that centered on whether to purchase a vehicle expressly designed for this purpose or outfit an existing van to be able to handle transports. Coroner Jerry Borden – who has a vehicle that can handle transports – said he submitted to the county for payment for the cost of a transport but was not paid. Kafferlin said that the coroner is already paid for his times and mileage for transports so submitting for additional payments was “double-dipping.” Deputy Coroner Melissa Zydonik said that they provided about 50 transports last year. Kafferlin said that his total budget is $60,500 and noted that he is 150 percent over budget in his use of deputy coroners. “I am trying to be a gentleman,” Borden said. “I don’t feel there is any courtesy or anything given. (You) come in two years and know more about how to run the coroner’s office than someone who has been in 50 years. Eggleston said that in their first budget hearing “you sat down with me” and asked about the numbers “and said ‘What’s the point? (You are) going to do what you want anyways.’” Borden said his frustration has been “building for a long time” with other boards of commissioners.

Register and Recorder

Kafferlin said the budget for this office was just shy of $150,000 in 2018 and that the actuals from 2017 were also $150,000. Fiscal Director Eric Hern asked Register and Recorder Lori Bimber about fees and whether there is anything she has the ability to increase. Bimber said that the state sets the max increase allowable and could raise fees but she said she is “not comfortable doing that right now.” She said that approval would be needed for any increases. “I think we’re in line with outer counties,” she said. “I have to have (an increase) approved by a judge and a reason to do so.”

Treasurer

Treasurer Denny Munksgard said that there were “no material differences” in his budget request and Kafferlin said that his 2018 budget was roughly $133,000 with “virtually no change between 2017 and 2018.” Munksgard said there is “no material difference in the operating expenses from previous years” excepting funds for a solicitor only utilized on an as-needed basis. He projected revenue, mostly fees from licenses – deer, fish, dog, pistol, would total approximately $26,000.

Courts

Kafferlin said the total budget for the courts was $300,000 in 2018 and that actual spending in 2017 was $379,000. President Judge Maureen Skerda said that senior judges are “not permitted in a county our size,” indicating that the state now considers the Warren-Forest combined court system “right-sized.” Skerda said that was effective July 30. “That should reduce in terms of the budget,” she said, noting that senior judges could still be utilized “in the case of a full-bench recusal.”

Tax Claim

Kafferlin outlined that the budget has remained consistent for the last couple years and has actually gone down a bit. Director Phil Gilbert said that he has changed processes, specifically regarding postage and saving reports digitally rather than hard copy.

Prothonotary

Prothonotary Jennifer Phillips said that she “re-created” with “very minimal changes” what her predecessor, Sue Kosinski, had crafted. Kafferlin asked about records digitization needs that were highlighted in the Early Intervention Program report. Phillips said it would require another staff person and is “really a lot of work…. (I) don’t see how that’s going to happen” with current staffing levels. The idea would be for attorneys to be able to make filings online though Phillips said it would not result in a decreased work load as a hard copy of the file would still be needed.

Maintenance

Separate budgets were reviewed for the courthouse, Historical Society building, Hickory St. Office, warehouse in Starbrick and the Rouse Annex building in Brokenstraw Township. The commissioners agreed that having a part-time person in the maintenance department is important for when Director Matt Nordin is off if something extraordinary happens. Kafferlin told Nordin that there may be a host of projects occurring at county facilities in 2019 through agreement with ABM and suggested that “I would definitely want you or someone who works for you… Available and around.”

Fiscal

Hern said he is “not looking to increase anything” and is instead “looking to combine a few line items and decrease a couple.”

He said his main capital request is a new financial software package, a recommendation of the Early Intervention Program report, estimating an annual upfront cost of $75,000 to $100,000.

Kafferlin noted that state grant dollars through the EIP program could cover the lion’s share of the cost.

Human Services

Ronna Tipton, human services director, noted that the department’s budget for 2018-2019 has been approved and noted that they will be redistributing some county match dollars to meet other programmatic needs. “We are not requesting additional (county) funds,” she said.

Meredith Ketcham, Children and Youth Services director, told the commissioners that their 2018-2019 budget was approved by the state in September and that they are asking for “slightly over $20,000 in increases” to the county match in 2019 to offer two new services – drug screening and forensic interviewing through the Children’s Advocacy Center. Ketcham said the drug screens would not be for criminal purposes but rather informational for the department to be able to make better decisions for family safety.

The commissioners also heard from the court hearing office as well as entities that receive county funds – the Warren County Conservation District and Victim Witness.

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