Is county budget process being micro managed

April 29, 2011
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The last meeting of the Kent County Finance Committee provided insight into how much detail — and angst — goes into putting together an annual operating budget, even when the expenditure being discussed is a relatively small portion of a much larger spending plan.

The Finance Committee, which has been looking at various budget items twice a month since February, spent its last session analyzing the county’s funding of the MSU/Kent County Extension Office. For the current fiscal year, the extension service is receiving $560,000 from the county’s operating budget of roughly $165 million.

Looking ahead to 2012, committee members were presented with three options to fund the agency next year. The first is $630,000, which would add $70,250 to the county’s fiscal support of the extension for next year but would maintain the same functions it provides the county this year.

The second comes to $330,600, which is almost $229,000 less than this year’s funding and doesn’t pay for Kendra Wills’ position as the county’s Purchase of Development Rights consultant, two part-time resource educators and the Master Gardener program — which Commissioner Roger Morgan said was very popular.

The third option costs $398,305, about $161,000 less than this year’s support, but nearly $70,000 more than the second option because it includes Wills’ salary and a few other expenses.

“You’re free to choose what you want funded,” said Betty Blase, extension district coordinator, to the committee.

The MSU/county extension budget is being scrutinized because the general operating budget for next year is facing about $1.5 million less in property-tax revenue and up to $4.5 million less in revenue sharing from the state than this year’s budget.

Also, MSU initiated a new assessment policy to all counties for its extension services.

“This is the way we need to operate for us to go forward,” said Blase.

The county’s assessment, which goes into effect in its next budget, is nearly $211,800 and is based on a flat fee of $31,000 and a per-capita charge of 30 cents.

“I think that assessment has been set by MSU and we’re either going to buy into it or not,” said Commissioner Richard Vander Molen. The assessment covers the cost of the annual Kent County Youth Fair, by far the largest farm-related event in the county each summer, and gives the county access to general extension programs but nothing specific to the county. Kent, though, can purchase other services from MSU.

Which option did the committee choose? None, so far. Harold Voorhees, committee chairman, suggested another alternative. He asked if the county’s Agriculture Preservation Board, which has Tom Antor as its chairman and only commissioner, could pick up the tab for Wills. The county pays for 60 percent of Wills’ salary and benefits, while the extension covers the remaining 40 percent.

Wills fills out the PDR funding grants and does the closing work associated with the preservation program. Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson didn’t think covering the cost of her position was a function of the preservation board, because Wills can’t speak on the board’s behalf and her consulting contract is with the county, not the board. But Swanson said she would look into the matter and get back to Voorhees.

As for the funding options that came before the committee, Voorhees suggested that his group wipe the slate clean. He said the committee should start with the $211,800 assessment and then have county staff return with recommendations on which services to fund.

Commissioner Jim Talen didn’t agree with that approach. “I just think that’s incredible micro-managing. I thought the board didn’t want to micro-manage things,” he said.

But Voorhees said, “I think we have to micro-manage every part of the budget.”

The Finance Committee will meet again next week and is expected to review the county’s portion of the Health Department budget, which is about $8 million annually. The department has a fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, while the county’s year starts Jan. 1.

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