County Grapples With 2020 Budgets

With 54 budgets to consider, the Kosciusko County Council and Commissioners spent about seven hours Friday meeting with department heads to look over the budgets in extended detail.

It was an opportunity for the council members and commissioners to ask for additional information on budgets or department requests. The meeting was open to the public, and a shorter version of the budget presentations will be at 6 p.m. Monday, which also is open to the public.

County Auditor Michelle Puckett went over the budgeting process and figures Tuesday morning with the Times-Union.

“Some departments, if they’re asking for new employees or new equipment or increases, they let them know, just gave them a little more background (Friday) on the increases they’re seeing in their budget,” she said. “Because it’s difficult when we meet on Monday night at 6 o’clock and they only have five minutes.”

At Friday’s meeting, department heads were given about 15 minutes to provide extra information if they had it.

While there are 54 budgets, there aren’t 54 departments in the county. Many county departments have multiple budgets, which includes tax dollar funds, user fee funds, grants and anything else the State Board of Accounts says needs to be budgeted.

The grand total budget of every single county fund that was adopted for 2019 was $43,574,964. The total being requested for 2020 is $49,079,714.

“That’s a $5.5 million increase that is a little bit more than 10%. Typically, the direction the Department of Local Government Finance gives us is, when you’re first presenting it, estimate high in some of your expenditures because we need a higher amount to advertise,” Puckett said. “So typically when it comes to wages and benefits, we increase that by 10% just for advertising purposes only, and that was at the direction of the DLGF.”

Puckett said those wages will be adjusted back, “but if the county doesn’t advertise high enough, it doesn’t have the opportunity to gain those increases.”

Typically, the county council will approve a 2 or 3% increase in employee salaries and wages. “So that’s just the difference between what we advertise and what we adopt,” Puckett explained, adding that the total being requested for 2020 will come down significantly just by the wages and benefits being adjusted.

“For advertising purposes, we ask the 10% just so we have some wiggle room. And departments are asked to turn in their budgets by the middle of June, so they’re only six months into the year and some of their expenses don’t even come – like our insurance premium increases – until after that. So, again, that’s why we ask for them to budget that increase in the wages and benefits to kind of cover that so we have some wiggle room,” she said.

As for individual county departments, many have more than one budget to plan for each year. Puckett said her office has three different funds, the assessor’s office has four funds while the commissioners have eight.

“I think overall this year most departments tried to hold their budget at exactly what it was last year, unless they had specific needs. I think there’s probably a handful of offices that asked for new employees next year. Of course, that’s always a huge expense when you’re adding a new employee and benefits. I would say, total, there’s about 10 or more new employee requests. And, again, we don’t know what new employees will get granted until next week,” she said.

Every department that asked for new employees next year put them in their 2020 budgets, but it will be up to the council next week to decide which new employees will be approved.

The county has a wage committee that looks at new employees, wages and salaries. It includes three councilmen, one commissioner, county administrator Marsha McSherry and Puckett. The committee will give its recommendation on new employees to the council, but that doesn’t mean the seven-member council has to approve any or all of the requests. The wage committee meets several times, at least once with the department heads, before coming to a recommendation to forward to the county council.

The county’s budget can be affected by the state and its revenue forecast for the county.

“If we’re talking tax dollar funds, the state gives us a growth quotient each year, which would be the amount of increase we can expect that the state is going to allow us to have,” Puckett said.

For 2020, Kosciusko’s growth quotient is 3.5%. “So what that means is, whatever tax dollar revenue we were allowed to collect in ’19, we can increase that by 3.5% for 2020,” she said. “That gives us a benchmark of where we know we’re going to be in tax dollars. And typically, our income taxes, our (County Option Income Tax) and (Economic Development Income Tax) revenues that we get each year, we see a marginal increase on those about 1%.”

She said that 1% isn’t a lot, but it also fluctuates a lot, too, because in the past four to five years “our economy’s been interesting. With the merger of Zimmer Biomet, obviously, that had a huge effect on the income taxes. So sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. So always when we are working on budgets, we try to budget on the high side, but when we look at our revenues, we estimate those conservatively.”

By budgeting high and estimating revenues conservatively, she said in the “worst-case scenario” the county can still fund what it’s approving.

After the budget presentations at 6 p.m. Monday, the next steps in the process will be the official public hearing at 6 p.m. Aug 22; and final budget adoption is Sept. 12. Technically, the county has until Oct. 31 to approve its budget, but Puckett said Kosciusko County is one of the earlier counties to approve its budget.

Once the county adopts its 2020 budget, it will go to the DLGF, which has until Dec. 31 to approve it. Puckett said she doesn’t see any reason why the county won’t have its tax rates by year’s end.