County operating on tight funds, opt-out?

Even though the Haakon County  Board of Commissioners knew the early months of 2011 were going to be financially tight, it was still hard to absorb when Haakon County Auditor Patricia Freeman presented them with a balance sheet showing they had just $142,943.42 to finance county operations for March and April.

Freeman noted that payroll is about $60,000 a month, with warrants varying, but last month's were about $97,000. "We have to be real conscience of our spending through April, when we will get an input of tax dollars," said Freeman. Commission Chairman Gary Snook asked, "Are we even going to get by for two months?" Freeman responded, "If we don't we'll have to cash in the CDs (certificates of deposit)."

While reviewing 2010 budget information compared to actual spending, Snook noted that the county was in the hole over $300,000 last year. Actual revenue brought into the county was $1,574,302.48 while expenses were $1,867,312.37. Two reasons given for the difference was a big drop in Non-Ag Z taxes and repair costs to the courthouse's plumbing.

"I don't see where you're going to have any more income than last year," said Freeman. She noted the highway department will get some funds from the wheel tax the commissioners implemented and the increase in vehicle registration fees the South Dakota State Legislature implemented this session. Those fees will begin July 1, 2011. The local wheel tax began January 1, 2011.

Fuel prices and increases in insurance costs have added to the county's financial problems. Rita Merrill, former county director of equalization, provided the board with information regarding the amount of ag subsidies given to Haakon County ag operators for the year 2009. She said $9,260,000 was paid out to 300 recipients in Haakon County for 979,000 taxable acres. "I think an opt-out is feasible. I think the money is out there," said Merrill.

Snook stated that the residents needed to know that only 20 percent of their total tax dollars would be affected by the county's opt-out. The other 80 percent of their taxes go to school districts, municipalities, fire and water districts and other assessed areas. These assessments would not be part of the opt-out.

Commissioner Steve Clements noted that the only fair way to raise the additional tax dollars was to do it across the board, for everyone in the county. "The only fair way is by property tax," said Clements.

Snook said he would meet with Freeman to work out figures to come up with a possible opt-out amount.

Support of the poor was also discussed at the commission's Monday, March 21, special meeting. Haakon County State's Attorney Gay Tollefson noted that the hospitals submitting the requests need to exhaust all possible avenues of third party payees before they bill the county. She added that the hospitals are required to inform the county within 15 days that the hospital has had an admission. If they don't, the county does not have to pay the bill.

Freeman noted that some hospitals like to bill on a ratio-to-cost basis while others go with the Medicare rate. Freeman added the Medicare rate is cheaper and that is the minimum rate at which the county is required to pay.

Tollefson add that a parent is not required to pay for an adult child, but an adult child is required to pay for a parent. Other criteria include the person has to have been a resident of the county for 60 days, they are not a veteran, nor Native American as they both have other programs available to them, and whether it is a medical necessity. "We are a court of last resort," said Tollefson.

Freeman noted that a bill about six years ago was paid for by the county, and that person did not meet the requirements. She said they were persuing avenues of restitution. Tollefson noted that might be long enough that a statute of limitations may apply. Deputy Auditor Carla Smith said she had checked with the clerk of courts and she reported that she did not know of any limitations.

Tollefson noted she and other state's attorneys will try to discuss this matter at a meeting in the near future. "State's attorneys can help write a policy and enforce it," said Tollefson.

City Finance Officer Monna Van Lint, Philip Police Chief Kit Graham and Haakon County Sheriff Mel Smith met with the board to discuss a sheriff's vehicle. Van Lint submitted value quotes from All Star Auto and LBS Auto Sales as well as the Blue Book value for the city's Durango. She said she averaged the high and low values to arrive at a $12,500 figure. Graham noted the four-wheel drive vehicle would have about 50,000 miles on it when surplused by the city.

Smith presented a price quote of about $25,000 for a new four door, half ton, four-wheel drive pickup. He said he would be more comfortable with the pickup as he did not feel comfortable driving the Durango on county roads at high rates of speed.

The county budgeted $10,000 for 2011 towards a new vehicle. Board member Nick Konst said the intention was to add another $10,000 for the next two years to purchase a vehicle in 2013. The board also budgeted $5,000 for repairs and maintenance on sheriff vehicles. The two current amounts could be used to purchase the Durango, but would short the repairs and maintenance budget. The board will make a decision at their regular meeting April 5.

The board approved to add a line to the county's policy handbook in regards to the highway department's policy of working four, six hour days November through April and four, 11 hour days May through October.

The board's regular monthly meeting Tuesday, April 5, will begin at 1:00 p.m. in the commissioner's room in the Haakon County Courthouse.