County Considers Options to Address $150K Shortfall

During an Executive Committee meeting Wednesday morning, members of the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners discussed ways to address likely budget shortfalls for the remainder of 2020, as well as for the next two fiscal years. Impacts of the recession and pandemic have caused significant drops in tax revenues from a variety of sources, including a revenue sharing program with the State of Michigan.

The shortfall for 2020 is around $150,000. County Administrator Teresa Doehring reviewed options with commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting, including a one-day-per month total furlough of all county employees, a reduction of the workweek from 40 to 35 hours, and cancellation or delay of some general fund contributions to St. Joseph County Road Commission projects.

Previously, county employee hours were reduced in May in response to the pandemic. “A lot of those furloughs were because we didn’t have a lot of work at the time, and because everything was closed,” Doehring said. “We did see some significant savings during that time as well, which has helped reduce our expected shortfall for 2020.”

Although one or two employees remain voluntarily on furlough, that furlough largely ended in July, concurrent with a Federal, $600 weekly pandemic relief benefit that employees with reduced hours could receive on top of state unemployment benefits.

Since then, county staff have learned that revenue impacts will require significant, additional measures. In a follow-up call with Watershed Voice, Doehring said, “our concern is, moving forward, the loss of revenue for 2021 and 2022, so we’re looking for ways to help shelter and protect our fund balance for right now,” in addition to meeting immediate shortfalls for 2020.

Recently, the U.S. Congress has been discussing ways to extend pandemic relief programs, but so far has remained at a partisan impasse. Last week, President Donald Trump issued executive orders establishing an employee benefit similar to the earlier one that would fall between $300 and $400. However, Doehring said, that program is not finalized yet. 

As reported through a variety of other sources, issues to be resolved center on logistics and details of the president’s programs, including who would be eligible for the benefits. The orders may also face legal challenges regarding whether or not the president has authority to carry them out without congressional approval.

Doehring discussed staff impacts. “I have put our union groups on notice that these are things that we’re talking about,” Doehring said. Among the two options affecting hours, general feedback indicated the periodic furloughs would be more popular with staff. “You’re reducing hours by 20 hours a month (with the workweek reduction) versus eight hours a month (with the furlough),” she said. “It would have a lower impact both financially and on their work time, planning, and logistics.” Court employees found the reduction proposals particularly difficult due to workload. 

In considering longer-term financial impacts, Third District Commissioner Dennis Allen said, “We’re looking at the 2020 budget, but where it really becomes difficult is in 2021 or 2022. What corrections we make now are going to make it much easier then, so personally, I’m looking at probably more seven-hour days instead of furloughs. I think that’s more of a money saver.”

With a reduction in workweek, Doehring said the courts would save about $104,000 through the end of 2020, while other departments would save about $50,000, assuming an August start. Finance Director Angie Steinman said the actual figures would likely be reduced by the equivalent of about one pay period since estimates were made a few weeks ago.

Because Federal assistance is uncertain, the commission agreed that the option with the most savings, the workweek reduction, was most prudent. “These are not fun, these are tough decisions to make,” Allen said, “but I’d rather do a little bit across the board than have to do all of it at once.”

Regarding Road Commission project funding impacts, First District Commissioner Allen Balog said, “to save money on the backs of our employees and turn around and put it in a road, at this moment in time, I would have to vote no if that’s what the board decides to move forward with.”

Commissioners said they could eliminate roughly $14,500 worth of funds earmarked for reconstruction of a bridge on Coon Hollow Road, while holding off a $72,500 contribution toward Constantine Road work until December.

Fourth District Commissioner Daniel Czajkowski said, “we can’t depend on the Feds to bail us out, but certainly, this could be contingent on the fact that if our government did get their act together and pass something to help the states out with these problems, we could rescind this, too.”

Allen said if Federal assistance does not materialize in the next two weeks, Doehring should plan to move forward with a reduction of hours. Doehring said she would have Letters of Understanding with union representation groups at the next Board of Commissioners’ meeting so commissioners could move ahead with approval of the reduction.

“I think I can speak on behalf of all the commissioners when I say that the discussions we’re having are very tough at this time,” Allen said. “None of us want to make decisions that may hurt our employees, and we’re going to do the absolute least possible (we have to in terms of cuts) so that we can keep our employees whole.”

Sheriff’s Department Pursuing Grant

For roughly the last three decades, the St. Joseph County Sheriff’s Department (SJCSD) has received a Secondary Road Patrol grant from the State of Michigan funding traffic safety measures that include two officers, gasoline, a radar unit, and a other miscellaneous items. 

Sheriff Mark Lillywhite said the amount received is based on the number of traffic citations issued and fluctuates from year to year. For fiscal year 2020, the state awarded $68,085 to SJCSD. For 2021, the state’s contribution is $46,458. The county’s contribution will be $163,674. Commissioners agreed to place approval of those funds on next week’s commission agenda.

Behavioral Health Contract Discussed

Also placed on that agenda is a resolution to support an intergovernmental contract with Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health (SMBH). In a follow-up call with Watershed Voice, Balog said SMBH’s purpose is to coordinate substance-abuse-related services between community mental health authorities, organizations, and agencies in an eight-county area that includes St. Joseph County and the St. Joseph County Community Mental Health Agency. 

Balog, who serves on the SMBH board, said the group works with “very, very good intent.” If passed next Tuesday, the resolution continues the county’s ongoing participation in SMBH, which helps it remain eligible for certain kinds of funding. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t want to continue to move forward on the three-year agreement with them,” Doehring said.

Commissioners to Pass Resolutions on Women’s Suffrage, ADA

August marks the arrival of National Women’s Suffrage Month, celebrating the anniversary of the August 26, 1920 ratification of women’s right to vote. “We received a request from the Three Rivers Woman’s Club. August 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Doehring said. “They would appreciate our recognition of this important milestone.” Commissioners agreed to place a resolution on next week’s agenda. 

Also at next Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners will consider a resolution recognizing the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990. That resolution was reviewed at a previous Executive Committee meeting.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.