Commissioners do additional budget review

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County commissioners met Friday morning, Oct. 29 with department heads to go over details concerning the 2021-22 county budget. The meeting took place at the request of District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones, who expressed a desire to have more detailed information regarding departmental budgets.

County Clerk Robin Slack said the Oct. 29 meeting was a "secondary review," since a budget discussion had been held Sept. 21 and budget information had already been provided to the Excise Board and the county's "budget makers." The term "budget makers" refers to budget advisory personnel who play an important role in the process of assembling final budget documents.

Slack clarified the Oct. 29 meeting was not required by the budget process.

"We're pretty much finalized at this point," Slack said. The Excise Board gives ultimate approval to the spending plan, she said.

The meeting took place at the Courthouse at 8:30 a.m., shortly before a scheduled meeting of the Excise Board. Most county commissioner meetings have been held at the Osage County Fairgrounds since the onset of the COVID-19 health threat. District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt was absent, but his first deputy, Loren Vaughan, sat in for him.

"We just didn't have enough information on the departments we're responsible for," Jones said.

Department heads such as Kay Kelley, of E-911, and Jerry Roberts, of Emergency Management, talked with commissioners briefly about some of the details of their anticipated expenditures.

Jones commented during the discussion that he was interested in making sure that pay levels among non-elected department heads were equitable. He also noted that pay for non-elected department heads has been increasing through the years to a point where it is common for department heads to make roughly 90 percent of what the elected officials to whom they report are paid.

A pay increase for county elected officials was approved in 2019, and is anticipated to take effect in January of 2024, Jones said. The last raise for the elected officials was more than 20 years ago, he said.

"It's not personal. It's not that you're not doing your job," Jones said, clarifying that his interest in pay levels of non-elected department heads did not signify any interest in picking on anyone.

The Board of County Commissioners did not make any changes in any 2021-22 budget details, and in a meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 29, the Excise Board made plans to hear Nov. 3 from the county's budget makers.

In other discussion Oct. 29 during the commissioners' meeting, Sheriff Eddie Virden said that inflation -- particularly increases in fuel and food prices -- is a threat to the soundness of his budget. Virden floated the idea that county officials may need to look at using some of their federal COVID-19 relief money to alleviate the impact of price increases.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney agreed with Virden that continued increases in fuel prices could be dangerous from a budgetary standpoint. McKinney said it will "kill" the county's road maintenance shops if diesel goes to $5 a gallon.

Jones commented that legislation is reportedly working its way through Congress to make alterations to regulations for the American Rescue Plan Act. He was referring to regulations that provide guidance and limitations to county governments regarding the expenditure of federal relief money.

"But it's going to be a while," Jones said, acknowledging that changes in spending guidelines may not be forthcoming quickly.

One of the financial challenges that the ARPA money is supposed to help county governments overcome is revenue declines brought about by the COVID-19 event.

Osage County Treasurer Sally Hulse said that auditors have reviewed an estimate that the county has lost about $2.6 million in revenue. That figure can be submitted to the U.S. Treasury Department for review.

An amount of roughly $9.1 million of ARPA funding was allocated for Osage County.