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Transcript of JoCo on the Go podcast 08/19/19

Announcer [00:00:01] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas. JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed [00:00:15] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm Theresa Freed, your host, a Johnston County resident and an employee of Johnson County government. Today we're talking about your tax dollars and how they're used to provide programs and services and much more. And helping with this important discussion is Johnson County manager Penny Postoak Ferguson and Johnson County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Ed Eilert. Thank you both for joining us today.

Ed Eilert [00:00:38] Thank you for the invitation to be here.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:00:40] Yes thank you.

Theresa Freed [00:00:41] We just got done recently approving the 2020 budget and I'm sure you're both very relieved to with that lengthy process being over. Can you talk about ways the budget aligns with the board's priorities as well as the communities.

Ed Eilert [00:00:54] Well the board had adopted three or four priorities for this coming budget year 2020 and they involve the major construction projects that are underway, the Courthouse, Medical Examiner's, Tomahawk Creek, Parks and then another priority was vulnerable populations as well as transit.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:01:20] In the vulnerable populations area. We were able to add some mental health positions and then also in the transit area we extended a micro transit pilot to inform us about future decisions for transit. In addressing the community needs a lot of the community survey responses overlapped with the Board Priorities that the chairman just highlighted in addition to that we were able to add some positions in the Sheriff's Department, the DA's Department, and some transitional funding for MED-ACT. And so we were able to keep our current services going forward, balance the budget with a constant mil levy and even enhance a few of those priorities.

Ed Eilert [00:02:04] Based upon our community survey consistently ranked as a top community priorities are Public Safety, Libraries, Parks and MED-ACT. So we tried to pay attention to those and as the county manager indicated we were able to fund almost all of those activities.

Theresa Freed [00:02:25] All right. In public safety obviously a very high priority and it's great to hear. Of course the county responding to that. Well putting together the budget is probably not an easy process. And you know like we sat through some study sessions we'd heard a lot of great information about how tax dollars are being used. Can you talk about just the steps of putting together the budget and getting to that approval.

Ed Eilert [00:02:47] Well the first step is the county manager...the county manager is required to present budgets at specific times both operating as well as CIP, capital improvements. And I'll let Penny address those specifics.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:02:59] Yes. So I recommend an overall budget to the commissioners that they deliberate over five to six months. The staff actually start the end of the previous year in December internally we work all the way up to then March where we meet with the Board of County Commissioners in a retreat setting to understand their priorities and preliminary budget on the revenue information and then starting in May then through the whole summer. There's a lot of deliberations. Throughout May the departments present to the board in open sessions their recommended budget and this year we were able to have a little bit more discussion with two new commissioners. We wanted to make sure that they had the background and there's a little bit more interaction with the department directors with the board this year and then leading up to July when there's a public hearing and I don't know if the Chairman wants to talk about it from there.

Ed Eilert [00:03:54] Well before that I want to emphasize the the detail work that the county manager and her staff go through. I mean this starts back in January. And so by the time we have a board retreat in March much of the information has been reviewed by staff and that information is shared at the board retreat. So it is an involved process by the staff and then the commission has the opportunity to receive that information and engage in conversation with department directors about the requests that they have made about their budgets. Then following that we make a decision about an overall budget which we publish. And once you publish the budget in that form you cannot increase it but you can decrease it. So then we have the public hearing process. Following the public hearing process we evaluate those comments and then make a final determination and submit the. budget to the state.

Theresa Freed [00:05:01] All right. And you mentioned the public hearing it was very well attended this year I know you know some years you have more or less attendance but you mentioned that you guys kind of look into those comments that you receive and evaluate them. So I'm sure people are interested. You know what are you looking for in the comments that you do receive what kind of feedback helps steer your direction.

Ed Eilert [00:05:21] Well the budget process always includes a balance of what revenues we anticipate, an evaluation of the needs of the community and the needs that we need to provide as far as service levels are concerned. This year at the public hearing, we did have a large attendance. Most of the comments that we heard at the public hearing were in support of increasing funding for mental health services. And of course that was part of our budget. I think there was an increase of six positions in the in the mental health area. So that information we receive at the public hearing is important.

Theresa Freed [00:05:59] All right. The mental health positions that were added. So that was in response to that or that was just a consideration.

Ed Eilert [00:06:07] No it was I think I guess a combination of information. Obviously our mental health department has been working with the schools and other community agencies especially in the area of suicides. And so we are also working with our sheriff's department in providing talking about a new program which mental health department will provide those services also for jail occupants. So it's been on the county commissioners agenda for some time and that agenda approach was verified by the comments we had at the public hearing.

Theresa Freed [00:06:47] And you talked about this being a unique year and that you have two new members and helping to educate them and the rest of the board on all of the priorities and all of the department's activities. Kind of navigating that process of getting to the point where you can reach a decision. What is that like?

Ed Eilert [00:07:08] Well it involves a lot of work on the part of the staff as well as county commissioners because we all have in some instances different ideas that we want to see implemented. So it's a matter of full discussion and full information to be received about the impact of my idea or someone else's idea. And so it's really just keeping a balanced approach to looking at revenues and looking at needs that our constituencies...our county residents demand.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:07:50] I would add that we at one staff put together a recommended budget for the board to consider. We look at the board priorities we look at the community satisfaction survey. We will have had a preliminary discussion at the retreat. So although the staff puts a recommended budget as a starting point, the board and the community priorities are factored in along with, like the chairman said, a balanced approach of really what's the revenue picture? And what's the demand for services and how do we invest in a balanced approach?

Ed Eilert [00:08:27] And I would I would say the last two budget cycles we've been able to have a very modest reduction in the mill levy. This year, we could not and that was primarily because of the services that we felt needed to be added both in the area of public safety, the district attorney's office, the Sheriff's office, mental health, MED-ACT as well as in parks and libraries we've had new facilities open new parks open which requires additional personnel. So all of those issues were examined. And you know a good way to begin the process is the board retreat where we receive general information from the staff. The board has an opportunity to express their ideas and yet at the same time we begin that balancing approach.

Theresa Freed [00:09:21] And when you start the budgeting process so early. I'm sure you start with obviously the priorities and your goals and the amount of money you're sort of looking at spending, but then since you're starting so early, things change. So how do you account for some of those unexpected changes that happen along the way.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:09:39] When we first start we used projections and we clearly say these are projections as of this date because we don't have much sales tax information for the year for example. Or the property tax valuation hasn't been...there are certain milestones that we have to hit as we're going through this process. So we're pretty conservative in the estimates. We note where the estimates are and if we do make changes or updates as we go through the process we'll clearly state what the assumptions were related to that. And so it is very early but it's worth the time to make sure that there is enough discussion for the board to feel comfortable and for the staff to prepare so estimates and update as we go.

Ed Eilert [00:10:27] One of the issues involved in determining mill levies the tax rate is the fact that our budget has to be presented to the state by the middle of August. So we are making estimates that final property valuations don't come in until October. So there can be minor adjustments in that mill levy up or down depending upon what the final valuation numbers are.

Theresa Freed [00:10:53] OK. And I'm sure the the economy, the state of the economy, plays a big factor in just what funds are available. How closely do you watch that and where do we sit here in Johnson County with that.

Ed Eilert [00:11:06] Well at this point in time if you look at several data points primarily unemployment. Our unemployment rate has been running right around three percent or just below. And that's very good. We have a strong economy. However in the recent reporting of sales taxes those did not meet expectations and sales tax receipts were down significantly in some of the cities. So we're still trying to determine whether that's you know a one off or whether there was a miscalculation of information we don't know yet. Sales tax receipts have come back up a little bit. So all of those economic factors are looked at by the Budget Department, by the county manager and the county manager's staff as well as the as well as the commission. So we try our best to identify those trends. But we are always impacted by what goes on at the national level. And I remember 2008 very very well where we started the year in pretty good shape and then by mid-year things really went down a long way. So the aftermath that was that we had to deal with that for several years beyond 2008. So there is always that possibility. That's why we maintain reserves...is to be able to react to something unexpected.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:12:37] I will add that on a monthly basis the chairman talked about things that we do through the budget process and absolutely we monitor it very closely. But outside of the budget process all year long I present on a monthly basis the CERI data that we're given and highlight that during each board meeting. I mean each month during a board meeting so that it's it's front and center have top of mind. What's the unemployment rate doing? What's the sales of homes? What are those things that are indicators of how the economy is doing? And as the chairman said Johnson County is doing very well. Very strong. But there's early indications of things you know changing a little bit is that a trend. We don't know yet. So we need to be monitoring that closely.

Ed Eilert [00:13:29] Our economic development in Johnson County is heavily dependent upon cities and so they do the heavy lifting as far as economic development. We stay in touch with them that understand what's going on. The acronym CERI stands for County Economic Research Institute in which the county funds and they provide us data as well as working with the private sector.

Theresa Freed [00:13:52] All right you both mentioned keeping a close eye on trends obviously the economy but another trend that we're paying attention to is just the make up of our population. So we have a very diverse population here in Johnson County and we have an aging population that's growing. So how as far as our finances how do you account for that and kind of try to plan ahead to meet their needs as we go forward.

Ed Eilert [00:14:16] Well all of us are getting older and that's that's good. So our aging commission and our human services department who works with aging programs as well as other areas of our population older vulnerable population. We keep close track and we do have a Commission on Aging which is composed of residents of Johnson County and they provide guidance to the county commission as well as Human Services department. So we do track very closely. Several years ago there was a reduction in state funding to support those activities. We stepped up and closed that gap and. We also did that recently with some of the housing voucher programs. So it is high on our radar and we worked diligently.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:15:09] As part of the Budget retreat every year. We try to give kind of the state of the trends to really kick off the process, which includes looking at demographics not only...well...the overall population because as the overall population increases that puts demands on all of our services but we also look at various sectors and just inform ourselves at minimum on a yearly basis to kick off the budget process. But we do it sometimes throughout the year as well.

Ed Eilert [00:15:42] And I would say one of the one of the emergency services that serve our elderly population is MED-ACT. And we focus a lot of attention and resources to make sure that particular service has the manpower and has the ability to respond countywide.

Theresa Freed [00:16:03] All right. Just to sort of wrap things up. We want residents obviously to be engaged in in their local government and to pay attention and we know not everybody is going to follow every bit of the budget process. So we want people to know just how do they get started and in getting involved in local government I mean maybe you guys can share some of your story on why you're passionate about being part of Johnson County government and some words of encouragement to keep people engaged.

Ed Eilert [00:16:30] Well there are several ways I think one of the one of the main areas or one of the big areas people can become involved. We have numerous boards and commissions that assist county government and most of those the appointments to those boards and commissions are made by the district commissioners. So if you're interested in a particular area please contact your district commissioner and see what what area of interest might be available. That's one way to really become hands-on. Other ways are all of our meetings are streamed online. So if you have access to a computer you can watch the weekly meetings they begin at 930 every Thursday morning. And if you have access to our Web site there's a lot of information on the Web site when it comes to budget. The full budget is always shown and presented on that website as well as that's a good resource to tell you how to get in touch with your county commissioner, your district commissioner or or my office.

Penny Postoak Ferguson [00:17:41] I would add that we have a Johnson County Citizen's Academy in the last few years we've done at least two a year and there's a demand and a waiting list for others to become involved with that and that's where you can learn a lot more about Johnson County government, ways to get involved. In addition to that is there's in addition to the boards and commissions that the chairman mentioned there's a lot of volunteer opportunities whether it's volunteering in our WIC garden Women Infant and Children's Garden, is one of our programs but they take volunteers to library pages, to a variety of volunteer opportunities and there's also some unpaid and paid internship options available as well in various departments. So if there's interest we certainly can help you in the county manager's office find the right place.

Ed Eilert [00:18:33] We would not be able to offer the level of services in Johnson County without our volunteers. And one particular service I would mention is Meals on Wheels a very very important service. All of those meals are delivered by volunteers. You don't have to sign up for a full week. You can do it day by day, but if you have an interest in that activity get in touch with the county manager's office or my office and we will put you in touch with the right people.

Theresa Freed [00:18:59] All right. Those are some great opportunities to get your foot in the door to Johnson County government for sure. Just want to mention again that the Board of County Commissioners meeting is again 930 on Thursday mornings. And you can come and watch live and participate live. It's at 111 South Cherry Street in Olathe. And again you can also if you can't get to the meetings go ahead and log onto your computer or get on your smartphone and you can watch live at boccmeetings.jocogov.org. There you can also check out the full agenda and access presentation materials and livestream is also available and closed captioning. All right. Well thank you both for joining us today.

Ed Eilert [00:19:38] Well, thank you very much.

Announcer [00:19:39] You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast visit JoCoGov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.