County dives into financial discussion

February 6, 2011
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Kent County Finance Committee Chairman Harold Voorhees said the reasons for last week’s work session were to ensure that the county has a strong financial core, avoids cost duplication and can identify which spending levels are correct and which aren’t.

So in a fairly informal sense, work on the 2012 general operating budget began with that work session. Very few numbers were tossed around and no one talked about the fate of state revenue sharing during the early-morning meeting, but there was a lot of discussion about trying to determine true costs, which often delved into proportional spending that is difficult to accurately define.

Voorhees also said committee members must have a good understanding of the services the county provides because they have a responsibility to make sure the funding for those services is being done as efficiently as possible. The Finance Committee recommends spending levels for general operations to the full commission. “It’s not a decision-making time,” Voorhees told the committee. “But it’s a time for learning.”

The learning tool committee members will use this year is a 132-page report that lists most mandated and discretionary services each county department and agency provides, and where the funding sources for the services can be found. The tool isn’t new; it’s in its fourth version. 

Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson said it took two years to put the initial report together, and it first appeared in 1998.

“We’ve been very adamant about keeping this updated,” she said. “This isn’t everything we do. It’s a snapshot in time. It’s really an evolving book and an evolving process.”

Swanson explained a mandated service for the county is one that is required by state law or the state’s constitution and has to be performed by all Michigan counties. She also said a county can’t get out of providing a mandated service by passing a tax levy that doesn’t contain a dollar amount. “You can’t nullify a mandate by passing a zero tax so there’s no funding for the service,” she said.

In addition, Swanson said the county can’t put a price tag on everything because its accounting system isn’t set up to track that. She said any figure her office would come up with would likely be subjective, especially for the indirect costs associated with providing services. She added that any attempt to try to track those numbers would take staff time away from providing a service.

“So at this point, we haven’t got to that level of detail,” said Swanson. “We actually try to answer those questions when they come up in a budget session.”

As an example, County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said his department has a $1.3 million budget, but he can’t say how much of his budget actually is spent on the budgeting process because the process involves every department manager.

Commissioner Dick Vander Molen offered another example of how exact numbers can’t be pinned down easily. He said the county spends $1.6 million each year on prevention services, but that allocation doesn’t include the salary cost of the administrators involved with the effort.

Commissioner Jim Talen, though, said administrators should be able to zero in on the internal cost for some functions. He said those costs need to be known for the county to know if the spending is being done efficiently. But Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt said some of the administrative office’s spending has leveraged additional dollars from foundations, businesses and other private sources for certain services the county provides.

The committee will continue this discussion next week.

“To me, this seems like the beginning of the 2012 budget session,” said Commissioner Jim Saalfeld.

Finance Committee members also waived the usual bid process for the Parks Department last week so the department could buy 42 6-foot-round folding tables and 450 stacking chairs with carts through the county’s reverse auction process. The policy had to be waived because the cost for the tables and chairs is likely to exceed $20,000.

“It’s been at least 10 years that we’ve been at the $20,000 level. It will be reviewed this year,” said Jon Denhof, county purchasing manager.

Denhof said the county started the reverse auction online last June. The process gives vendors a chance to bid on goods and services the county needs. Denhof said the auction has resulted in competitive bids. Parks Director Roger Sabine said he plans to replace the county’s picnic tables with the round tables and chairs, which he feels will enable the parks system to capture more weddings, anniversary parties and business meetings.

The Parks Department can’t pay more than $46,000 for the tables and chairs. The department has the funds for the purchase in its 2011 budget.

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