Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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December 9, 2016

Sullivan’s Salvos     12/13/16

In this edition:

*County Budget Process
*Some History of the County Budget Process
*Did You Know?

*County Budget Process
         The County is hard at work on the FY17 budget. In case you had ever wondered about the process: Supervisors hold meetings with every Elected Official and Department Head, discussing and debating their budget requests. New requests get added to a “Decisions Pending” list.

         Assessment and tax data comes in around Christmas. That data is loaded into the spreadsheets, and we see how much is available. We then return to the Decisions Pending list and determine what things will be a part of the budget and which things will be axed.

         Numbers are checked and double checked, and a budget is produced. That budget is published; after publication, a budget can be lowered but not raised. A public hearing is set; the Board considers this public input before a final vote occurs. The vote happens – the budget is approved – and said budget is sent to the State of Iowa for their blessing.

*Some History of the County Budget Process
The March 11, 2008 meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors did not appear to be controversial. The Board was meeting on a Tuesday morning rather than our usual Thursday due to the Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) meeting in Des Moines later that week. Otherwise, things seemed quiet.

         The big item on the agenda was the approval of the County Budget for FY09. While the approval of the budget is indeed a very big deal, we had held a Public Hearing the previous Thursday evening. While there were some people in attendance at the Public Hearing, no one from the public even chose to speak. The budget seemed noncontroversial.

         I was the Board Chair then as now. Supervisor Terrence Neuzil moved the budget; Supervisor Larry Meyers seconded the motion. I asked if there was any discussion on the motion; there was none. I called for a roll call… Neuzil? Aye. Harney? Nay. Stutsman? Nay.

         Only six words had been spoken, and my heart was in my throat. Our FY09 budget was in jeopardy of failing. This would be unprecedented. The time slowed down, as it does when you are in car wreck.

         I flashed back three years. Curious by nature, I had asked then-County Attorney Pat White a question: “What happens if the budget vote fails?” His reply was quick and firm. I am paraphrasing a bit, but I know the first sentence of his statement is a direct quote: “It would be a catastrophe. Building and road projects stop. Contracts are broken. The Bond Rating would plummet. There is no money for raises or new staff. You do not want to go there.”

         Pat White’s words rang in my head as I turned to my left. Larry Meyers was one of the most unlikely Supervisors you would ever find. KCJJ jokingly referred to him as an “urban woodsman”. While Larry did not look or act the part of a Supervisor, he was a very kind, fair, funny, and smart man. We had grown to be good friends in his 14 months on the Board.

That said, I was worried. No one had expressed more concerns over that year’s budget than Larry. Johnson County was in the middle of an unprecedented building boom: the Health and Human Services Building and SEATS Building were both under construction, we had a new Conservation Operations Center, and we were planning the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC). Larry had expressed his reservations over the amount of construction we were undertaking.

I looked at Larry, and he stared back at me. I thought about nodding my head – mouthing “aye” – trying somehow to send a message. But I did nothing. I just stared.

It felt like an hour. Larry turned toward Casie Parkins, the minute taker from the Auditor’s Office. “Meyers?” She asked. “Aye,” he replied.

My sigh was audible. I voted “aye” before Casie had even completed pronouncing the word “Sullivan.” The FY09 budget had been approved. Our projects would continue. Our bills would be paid. Tragedy had been averted.

I have never forgotten the way I felt at that meeting. And I went about ensuring that it never happened again. We instituted a few changes in the budgeting process that remain with us today.

I had a pointed conversation with Supervisor Harney at our next work session. I noted that he had been supportive of all of the individual components of the budget, but had voted against the sum total. He claimed that he had opposed several items. That seemed disingenuous to me. I knew it was false. But there was nothing on record. So Supervisor Neuzil and I created a Budget Decision form.

We now record a vote on each decision that costs new money. $25,000 for a new Sheriff’s vehicle? Every Supervisor must vote. $40,000 for a new Clerk? Every Supervisor must vote. Supervisor Harney has attempted to get out of several votes since, noting, “There are already three yes votes.” We don’t care. Every Supervisor must vote. This process has served us well. It is now very clear how each Supervisor feels about each issue.

         We also began a process of asking at every budget meeting from late January on, “Is there anything in here that is a deal breaker? Please speak now.” That way, Supervisors would be obligated to express their concerns before it was too late. This process, too, has served us well. It has brought a necessary level of transparency to each Supervisor’s decision-making process.

         A budget is the sum of literally thousands of smaller decisions. Every budget cycle there are a few things I wanted but did not get. Every budget cycle there are things I voted against that end up in the final document. That is simply how it works with 5 people making decisions – you win some, you lose some.

         At least I know that our current process allows me a voice. I may get outvoted, but I have had the opportunity to convince two colleagues that my idea is worthy.

         The FY09 Budget vote was stressful, but it led to many improvements in our budgeting process. As we move through the FY17 budget, I am certainly glad those protections are in place!

*DID YOU KNOW?  Your property tax bill is a combination of three factors: 1.) The value of your property; 2.) The rollback (if applicable); 3.) The tax rates of the applicable taxing authorities.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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