By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
During the Seward County Commission’s regular meeting on July 19, concerns arose about the county’s budget, particularly in the department of the county attorney.
County administrator Mary Bloomer said the office was looking to hire three additional staff. The item was budgeted for, but at the meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to implement a hiring freeze.
Monday, commissioners met in a work session to discuss allowing county attorney Don Scott to hire the extra staff, and most agreed with commissioner C.J. Wettstein, who at the July 19 meeting said bringing on additional employees would send the wrong message to department heads.
“I’m actually concerned about adding additional staff in 2011,” he said at that meeting. “We’re talking about a hiring freeze, and all of a sudden, we’re hiring three additional staff in the county attorney’s office.”
Monday, commissioner Steve Eisenhauer referred to a case that took place about eight years ago in Lincoln County in which it was found that any elected official can request any amount of money it takes to effectively run their office.
“They don’t have to adhere to the budget,” he said.
Eisenhauer said that same year, Johnson County did a grassroots study in which most of its elected officials were eliminated.
“That thing ran through (the Kansas Association of Counties) like wildfire,” he said. “The finding was that they could not control that sheriff.”
Eisenhauer said that case stemmed from a deputy being fired by the county commission. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the commission had no control over the hiring and firing of employees, as well as budgets, in the sheriff’s department.
“That’s a gray area that we discussed for two or three years after that about getting some legislation passed so it’s not a gray area, and nothing’s ever been done,” he said. “What I got out of it was that the county commission, even in matters of the budget, had no control over offices of any elected officials.”
County counsel Dan Diepenbrock said a budget can still be set by the commission, but from that point, it is out of the board’s hands.
“You can tell the county clerk this is all the money we’re giving you,” he said. “You can tell the sheriff this is all the money we’re giving you, but once you set the budget, you have no control over the way they spend it.”
While a decision was not made Monday, Bloomer said whether or not the commission resolves to allow Scott to hire additional staff will impact benefits of county employees.
“It will reduce employee benefits a little bit,” Bloomer said.
She estimated that reduction to be about $40,000.
Wettstein praised the work county department heads have done to reduce their budgets.
“I think our departments do a very fine job, and finding a lot to cut out of it is a tough situation,” he said. “I don’t think that we have anybody who just really blows money. When we come to the end of the year and they have money left over, it returns to the general fund.”
The current general fund level is at just more than $300,000 for Seward County, and Bloomer said, ideally, it should be around $800,000.
Bloomer said the commission has likewise done well given the hard economic times.
“I think it’s commendable to the board that you haven’t cut services,” she said.
Elections deputy Crystal Clemens said in a recent department head meeting, employees appear to be ready for the cuts.
“If it came down to cutting jobs or cutting hours, they would rather see everyone go to a 35-hour work week and we all get to keep our jobs,” she said.
Bloomer will review the numbers of what impact the decision to hire additional staff in Scott’s office will have, and a new budget proposal will be presented to the commission at next Monday’s regular meeting.