By ELLY GRIMM
• Leader & Times
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 1 of the story recapping the community meeting hosted by Seward County Thursday evening. This part will cover how the county budget works, and the other part will cover some projects the county commissioners said they are excited for.
After a brief history lesson and some numbers from other U.S. counties given by Seward County Commission Chairman Nathan McCaffrey, county administrator April Warden gave the gathered crowd at Thursday evening’s community meeting a look at how the county’s budget works, and began by praising some of the recent work by the commission.
“Something I would like to mention, first off, is the commissioners actually took the time to have what they call a retreat, and our city commissioners who are in the audience tonight can tell you, when they have their regular meetings, there’s a lot of times when you can’t take the time just to focus on the business at hand, some of the comments that were given by the community and other things that need looked at,” Warden said. “During this retreat, the commission was able to develop its mission statement and core values. I would encourage everyone to look at those because they spent a lot of time on it, and those were the things most important to them and the community.”
Warden then moved on to giving insight as to how the county sets up its budget.
“Budgeting is one of those things where, before I came to work for the county, I didn’t fully understand the budget and what all went into that process, so I want to let you know about the development and considerations and the public presentation and adoption of it all,” Warden said. “It encompasses one of the single most important decisions the commissioners have to make, because they are responsible for looking after the taxpayers’ money. It’s your money they’re governing and making decisions about. It conveys what the commitments are and what the priorities are for the community resources we have. With the annual budget, we have short-term and long-term priorities we have to look at and other objectives.”
The two types of county budgets are the Operating Budget (which sets out the work programs for the county in the coming year and explains how the county is going to make that work happen) and the Capital Budget (which explains the capital improvements that will need to be made, such as county buildings or infrastructure), Warden continued, both of which take a lot of thought.
“Preparation and adoption of the budget focuses on the primary opportunity for the county to evaluate the current services we’re offering,” Warden said. “It measures and compares the needs for the different services the county needs, and balances the public services needs against taxes and revenue. When I talk about the services we offer, we all know there are services the county is required by law to service, and there are also the needs that are for your basic health and welfare and quality of life. A lot of times counties themselves won’t offer those services, but there are people in the community who do, one example being the Liberal Senior Citizens’ Center, or Southwest Guidance Center, among others.”
With the budget, Warden continued, there is more to it than simply filling out paperwork to get it all through.
“We have to comply with state law, and we have to levy taxes,” Warden said. “Basically, the budget guides what the commission will accomplish along with human capital and the financial means to do so. The building block of the county budget, and most county budgets, is the fund, which is the municipal accounting entity that’s somewhat similar to a checkbook, and in that, we include cash, revenue and expenditures, so each fund has its own budget. Kansas law authorizes counties to establish a variety of different funds for specific activities and levy taxes dedicated to those activities. Both the county clerk and county treasurer have their eye on those funds daily and work to check and balance each other to let us know everything’s working like it should.”
Warden also said there are certain state laws and statutes of how and when a budget must be adopted and approved by taxing entities, saying without a budget, the county has no authority to spend funds.
“Once you establish a budget, you’re establishing maximum expenditures the county can spend in that fund,” Warden said. “They’re not allowed to go more than or create an excess of the amount they planned to spend with the fund. Sometimes we have cash reserves, and there’s money in that fund, but they still can’t spend any of that if they didn’t budget it out, and sometimes that’s hard for even us department heads to understand.”
Warden added a balanced budget is required, and is very important.
“Some of us have a hard time with the way the federal and state levels balance their own budgets,” Warden said. “Part of the law says we can’t just put a miscellaneous line item in there, and even for miscellaneous purposes, it can’t exceed 10 percent of the budget, so they really make you itemize out what you’ll be spending and what you’ll be spending it on, so you can’t just stick a bunch of miscellaneous items in there.”
Ultimately, the adoption of the county’s budget rests with the county commission, Warden continued.
“They do, however, delegate certain budget developments and other responsibilities to others,” Warden said. “For example, in our county clerk’s office, she has a finance coordinator, and she helps the commissioners with some of the budget preparations. We also work with other municipal advisors such as our auditors at Hay, Rice and Associates. It’s crucial the commissioners clearly define who they’ll work with in those processes, and when they expect that information. They communicate with all the involved parties, and we’re actually in the midst of our budget preparation right now. Our budget has to be submitted to the state by Aug. 25, so what we do is we set out a calendar with specific dates of when each step is going to happen, like the public discussion and development, along with our budget workshops.”
There are several people who work on developing the budget, all of whom work very hard throughout the whole process.
“Bottom line, the budget is not just a once-a-year activity,” Warden said. “It’s not a situation where it’s abandoned until the next budget cycle. The governing body continually looks at the budget throughout the different phases, and there are monthly reports the commission looks at to keep track of everything and help prepare for the future.”