County faces possible budget shortfall for FY 20-21 of $900,000 or more

Robert Smith

With Pawhuska’s economic rebirth in recent years — particularly since the opening of The Pioneer Woman Mercantile in the fall of 2016 — it may come as a shock to many, but Osage County officials find themselves in a quandary when considering their budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones, chairman of the Osage Board of County Comissioners this calendar year, recently told the Barnsdall Chamber of Commerce he thinks the county could be facing a shortfall in the sheriff’s office budget for 2020-21 of $900,000 to $1.2 million. Jones says the days of “kicking the can down the road” have come to an end.

What he’s refering to is that the county has completely used up a financial “cushion” that allowed it for numerous years to pay the sheriff’s office’s expenses without either making cuts somewhere or raising taxes. The county, with voter approval, levies a 1-cent sales tax to support the sheriff’s office. Earlier in the life of that sales tax, it produced a surplus of receipts that became a financial cushion on which the county was able to rely.

Jones and Sheriff Eddie Virden explained that the sales tax no longer produces the level of revenue that it did in the days of the surpluses, and the result is that the county has slowly whittled down the “cushion.” It spent the last of that cushion in this fiscal year (2019-20), and there will be no such reserve for the next county fiscal year.

That means county officials have to figure out what to do about the impending shortfall.

“I’m working on it. I’m looking at everything,” Jones said. “We can’t kick the can down the road everytime anymore, and that’s what’s been done the last ten years. I’m just trying to come up with a solution.”

Jones added that the county is certainly not in a position to look at large capital expenditure projects right now — for instance, a courthouse renovation or replacement project. He noted it would be hard to “remodel the front room when the kitchen’s on fire.”

Jones said he doesn’t think the county should raise taxes. That would just hurt people, he said.

“I’m leaving no stone unturned,” he said.

Sheriff Eddie Virden, who is running for re-election this year, said his budget has not grown since he took office. The budget numbers he’s working with today are almost exactly the same as the numbers he inherited in January 2017, he said. He pointed out that he has held the line financially even as he has been responsible for making numerous repairs to the county jail and sheriff’s office facilities.

The repairs included dealing with a collapsed sewer line, replacing locks on inmate enclosures, and more.

Virden said it looks to him like there are two financial options — either the county commissioners find a way to come up with additional funds for the sheriff’s office, or the sheriff’s office budget has to be cut by a certain amount. He said the department has already engaged in considerable expense trimming.

“We have truly, in my opinion, trimmed every ounce of fat and we’re running a very lean operating system,” Virden said, explaining his deputies get “every ounce of possible use” out of their patrol vehicles, in spite of having a tremendous area to cover.

There are legal requirements, based on population, regarding the number of 911 dispatchers who must be employed, and there are legal requirements for the number of jail staff members by inmate population in a correctional facility, Virden said. He normally has four or five patrol deputies on shift at any one time in the largest county in the state.

“Where would you trim that out is the question,” he said.

“I believe they’ll cover as much as they can” he says of the county commissioners. “We are good until July. That’s when we might have to panhandle.”

Virden said that he, also, dislikes the idea of raising taxes. He said that he believes citizens are already taxed too much, particularly at the state and national levels

“And I don’t believe the taxpayers should be burdened with more taxes,” Virden said.