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Jackson County tightens spending, addresses pay needs

By Jeff Fox

Jackson County starts 2021 with a slimmer budget, thanks to county legislators’ decision last fall to hold the property tax levy in place despite falling revenues in a slow economy.

County spending for the year is set at $341.66 million, down about $19 million, or 5.3 percent, from 2020.

“The budget is down and is reflective of the COVID-19 pandemic – the economic recession brought on by that, primarily brought about by sales tax collections … But you’re seeing an overall sluggishness in all our revenues,” County Administrator Troy Schulte told legislators when outlining the proposed budget of County Executive Frank White Jr. as legislators began budget considerations several weeks ago.

Still, the county continues to address employee pay, which White and others have said has been too low for years. As of Jan. 1, the lowest-paid jobs in the county pay $13.75 an hour, another step toward a minimum wage of $15 an hour in 2022.

The county also is implementing a comprehensive study that identified pay inequities across the county. Out of that study, 765 employees will get raises of an average of 7.7 percent. Other employees can qualify for annual merit pay raises. 

“For the first time in several years, this budget will provide a pay adjustment for all county associates,” Schulte told legislators.

He added, “You’re one the few organizations that's kind of digging deep to reach in and make sure we continue that effort to slow turnover and make sure that we have a competitive wage.” 

In particular, Schulte said, pay needed attention in the public administrator’s office and for appraisers in the Assessment Department. In effect, he said, Jackson County trains many of those employees and then loses them to Johnson County, Kansas.

“And we hope that will help us make it easier to recruit trained staff and lower turnover that we’ve historically witnessed in those two departments,” Schulte said.

All of this puts the county in a better position, he said.

“My argument is I think you’re now at a pretty good pay scale,” Schulte said. “You’re at a market pay scale for public-sector employees, probably comparable even to some private-sector operations.”

But Schulte said that also means the county will be hiring less and doing so more judiciously.

He also expressed longer-term concerns about the county’s general fund – the largest part of the budget – and the road-and-bridge fund.

“We’re spending more than we’re bringing in, in the general fund, and we’ve been doing that for years. … We’ve got to figure out a way to either increase revenues or reduce expenditures in the general fund, to solve that structural problem,” he said.

That gap was $15.8 million in 2020, and is proposed to come down to $10.2 million this year. Schulte said the county has done a good job of building up reserves, which has meant a better credit rating, which means lower interest rates when the county borrows money. That’s important because the county has a major bond issue coming up, possibly this year, to build a new jail. That’s likely to add about $13 million a year in debt service, starting in 2022.

If the county draws down reserves too much, it would hurt the bond rating.

“Your reserve numbers are good,” Schulte said, “but the trend is not good long term.”