County Budget Shortfall Discussions Continue

(Photo by John Deacon|American Courthouse Photo Archive)

The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners tabled a request by County Clerk Lindsay Oswald to fill a vacant deputy clerk position at an Executive Committee meeting Wednesday morning. Oswald sought to fill the position previous to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, she said, “I know this is a difficult time to make this kind of request, but everything that held true then still does, and we are having trouble keeping up with things the way they are right now.”

Oswald said staff capacity ran “significantly short through the summer” due to pandemic-related furloughs, and said, “we’re continuing to run short in register of deeds office. The amount of CPL requests has significantly increased right now. We kind of got bombarded when we opened back up. It’s also a presidential election year. Even moving forward, we know there is a need to keep this position to keep on track with customer service.”

Third District Commissioner and Chairman Dennis Allen said he empathized with Oswald’s request, but had difficulty with the idea of going forward with filling any positions during ongoing conversations about budget cuts in the face of severe revenue losses for the remainder of this year, as well as similar impacts that appear likely for the next two years. He expressed concerns about the what the public perception would be if the county were to hire for a position amid other cuts.

In recent conversations, commissioners have discussed two primary options as presented by County Administrator Teresa Doehring. One would involve a monthly furlough day in which all county functions shut down for the day. Employees would not be paid for that day. The other option would involve reducing staff to a 35-hour workweek.

The second option would provide a greater cost savings. Monthly furlough days, if implemented immediately, would save the county around $61,000. The workweek reduction would save $140,000. Exact revenue impacts are uncertain but may end up being significant by the end of December, and Allen and other commissioners said it appears unlikely that the U.S. Congress and the President will agree on any significant kind of aid package in the foreseeable future.

The workweek reduction option has brought stronger objections from department heads who, like Oswald, report ongoing capacity issues. Doehring suggested that it could be possible to get by on the furlough day approach through the end of this year before making harder decisions. Fourth District Commissioner Daniel Czajkowski said he doesn’t think delaying significant action is possible. “I don’t think we can get around this,” he said.

Although it has not yet chosen a solution, commissioners have generally leaned in favor of the workweek reduction in ongoing discussions. Doehring said uncertainty about revenues for 2021 and 2022 could even mean possible position eliminations in the future.

Doehring said there have been significant challenges to operating a revenue-generating department with the current capacity of two staff. The Clerk’s Office has been one of the last county departments to bring staff back at full capacity following pandemic reductions. Allen said he agreed and sympathized, but said, “I would say managers are going to have to figure out how to distribute work.”

Under previous directives from the commissioners, Doehring is finalizing details for what the workweek reduction will look like. She is negotiating with the department heads and the various employees’ Union groups to settle those details. It those conversations go smoothly, Doehring hopes to have a formal proposal for consideration at the regular Board of Commissioners meeting next Tuesday evening.

Second District Commissioner Kathy Pangle suggested the commissioners table Oswald’s request for consideration when financial impacts are clearer. The other commissioners all supported Pangle’s suggestion. “I’m not saying no,” Pangle said, “but I think we need a clearer understanding of where we’re going with the workweek and the furlough days before we talk about filling a position at this time.”

Commissioners to Approve Two Grants

County Grant Administrator James Hissong said the county is eligible for funding under a pair of grants. One such grant has already been awarded to the county, and only requires the commissioners to pass an affirmative vote in order to move forward.

That grant awards $217,975 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to the county through the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG), a Federal program administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

Hissong told Watershed Voice the traditional focus on the CDBG program is on housing and community development, but that this round is purely for coronavirus funding. There are restrictions on its use, and he is working with Doehring to finalize a list of places the money can go without running up against restrictions on other pools of funding that sometimes cannot overlap. Hissong mentioned the St. Joseph County Commission on Aging as one possible beneficiary.

Because no voting takes place at an Executive Committee meeting, no motions are passed. In the case of a grant like this one, a public hearing is necessary for commissioners to approve moving forward. Five business days’ notice is necessary for a public meeting to be held, so approval will take place at the Board of Commissioners’ regular meeting on September 15 rather than the one scheduled for next Tuesday. “Sounds like a no-brainer,” Pangle said.

Hissong also reviewed the status of a pending application through the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency for a County Veterans’ Service Fund Grant. Hissong said the county must reapply for the program each year, but it receives funding through the program annually.

Each year, Hissong said, “we receive the maximum amount that we apply for.” This year’s amount of just over $55,000 will be somewhat lower than usual amounts, typically around $70,000, due to cuts at the state level. The funds help cover the county’s Veterans Services Officer position, an animal support program, office rent, housing, and utility costs. The county must agree to certain terms, including committing to not reducing veterans services budgets. “Sounds like another no-brainer,” Pangle said.

Also in County Executive Committee business:

  • Commissioners agreed to place on next Tuesday’s agenda the renewal of an intergovernmental agreement between St. Joseph County, several other adjacent counties, and the Southwest Michigan Works! Workforce Development Board. That board helps the counties involved to pursue workforce related and economic development opportunities.
  • Also for next Tuesday’s agenda, commissioners will vote on approval of updated bylaws for the county’s Workforce Development Board.

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.