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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

County to consider charging cities for services

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

MOUND CITY – After last week’s controversial and at times heated meeting, the Linn County Commission set aside time on Monday, Feb. 13, to discuss concerns and plans for the county. Their idea was to schedule a block of time so they could discuss issues and concerns and develop priorities to work on.

For freshman Commissioner Jason Hightower, the concerns revolved around building a better culture for county workers, developing consistent policies and procedures, taking action whether it was positive or negative, and updating pay scale and raises for county employees.

Commissioner Jim Johnson’s priorities were expenditures by the health department and how much the county is paying for school resource officers. He has been vocal about those concerns during his first two years in office.

For Commission Chair Danny McCullough priorities included updating the county employee pay scale and whether to start charging cities in Linn County for services the county now renders for free.

At the end of the session, there was some consensus that the first priority of the commission should be to look at the pay scale. However, Johnson didn’t seem to be in total agreement with that.

Johnson said that is sounded like what McCullough and Hightower wanted.

Because next Monday is when Presidents Day is celebrated, county offices will be closed and the commission will meet on Tuesday, Feb. 21. Hightower will be absent at that meeting, so commissioners will not discuss the county’s pay scale until Monday, Feb. 27.

Below is some of the discussion about the concerns of the commissioners.

• Commissioner Hightower: Start doing a better job of building our culture within the county and staff, how we treat and deal with people. We need to develop a mission statement that we follow.

Hightower explained that the commissioners are the managers of a county that has 142 employees; they are the board of directors for the county. There are part-time employees as well. He said they should not worry about other entities and what they are doing, because the commission has enough things to work on.

He said that the commission needed to control what is in their control and be collaborative with county staff and cities rather than fighting with them.

Later in the meeting, Commission Chair Danny McCullough pushed Sheriff Kevin Friend to say why he had not been coming to the meetings.

Friend said, “Because I was treated badly, and I don’t go where I am treated badly. I have no need to be there. It’s my personal mission.”

Hightower said that is why the culture that the commission has established is flawed. He told Friend the commission should be appreciating him and the job he is doing.

“I appreciate that commissioner, but I work for this county to a tune of a lot of hours and I take my position very seriously, and when people treat me like crap I don’t go there,” Friend said.

McCullough said that he felt like the county has department heads in place, elected and non-elected, to serve our county and was opposed to the commission questioning everything they do. They have a spending limit that the commission approved. He said those managers feel like commissioners think they are not doing their jobs, and that creates division in the county.

• Commissioner Hightower: Develop consistent policies and procedures.

Hightower said that he did not like the implied orders that the commission had talked about with the sheriff. He added that commissioners need to be taking action in meetings so they can set clear expectations.

Hightower said that commissioners need to be clear about what they want, and they can work together with the sheriff about the policy. He added that the commission has got to work together with department heads.

• Commissioner Hightower: Take action both positive and negative.

Hightower asked what message they gave Alison Hamilton last week about the sign when she came asking for $13,900 to fund a sign designating a portion of U.S. Highway 69 as Walter Scott Brown highway. Brown died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the attack that drew the United States into World War II.

McCullough and Johnson both said they told her to get some funding and the county would match it.

And yet the commissioners were worried about $1,500 for speakers at the health department, he said. The director of the health department asked to use speakers to pipe music into the examination rooms to prevent people from hearing conversations in the adjacent examination rooms.

Johnson asked what Hightower thought about what that sign says about Brown as compared to speakers.

“Do you know the guy?” asked Hightower.

“No, but my dad did,” said Johnson.

Hightower said in his estimation, the commission is going to grant her funds to put up a sign to remember somebody who in the past did some good things. However, the commission not going to take care of the people today.

• Commissioner Hightower and Commissioner McCullough: Pay scale.

Hightower suggested doing a confidential employee survey to find out what is truly important to the county’s employees.

He said that the commission could not just go off the employees that they know, and they needed to get everyone’s input.

Hightower said the commission could develop a committee to come up with the questions that need to be asked. Hightower said he would be willing to serve on that committee.

• Commissioner Hightower: Merit based raises are where the focus needs to be on the pay scale.

“We keep the good, we build the capable,” said Hightower.

Hightower said that the commissioners needed to work with employees and provide them guidance and support.

He asked why would anyone want to work for the county. With the current culture, the way commissioners are treating people, why would anybody want to work for the county?

• Commissioner Johnson: Health department, the money we are spending and how many people we see.

Citing cost, Johnson has been a proponent of bringing in the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department (SEKMCHD) to replace the county-run health department in Pleasanton.

At Monday’s meeting, McCullough said the health department provides a lot of services, pool parties and many other events and a lot of services that the county wouldn’t get with the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department (SEKMCHD) does not provide all these services.

McCullough said he had dealt with the SEKMCHD a little bit. SEKMCHD is in place to cover a state statute and they don’t provide the services that the Linn County Health Department does.

Health Department administrator Missy Lancaster came into the commission meeting last month to request permission to install an electronic sign at the health department to promote the services the department offers.

She also recently asked to install speakers to pipe music into the examination rooms because apparently there was no acoustic insulation in the walls and people could hear conversations in adjacent examination rooms.

Both of those projects are being done with money from grants applied for by Lancaster, but Johnson has been critical of both of those expenditures in addition to a lean-to on the building that allows health department staff to stay out of the weather to perform COVID and other testing.

Hightower said, “You’ve approved her budget and it’s within her spending limits. You should have voted against her going out for proposals on it (sign).”

Johnson said he did not know enough about the sign.

McCullough said that Lancaster came into the commission meeting and did a workshop, and commissioners did not give her any answers.,

A lot of people don’t understand what the health department does, they think it is just for low-income people and that is not the case at all, said McCullough.

Johnson said that’s why he keeps going back to wanting to see what we have. He added that private enterprise would not operate that way.

Hightower said the county is not a private enterprise. He also said that the county needs to do a better job of marketing the health department.

Hightower said Johnson can disagree with it and he can put his “no” vote on it. He said that is why he voted no on not supporting the La Cygne water plant. He thought grant funds should be given to La Cygne.

He said that he voted for what he believed, but he is not harboring any ill feelings about the funding not going to the city.

Hightower also said the argument that Johnson had used about the speakers is that the county should have built the building better with soundproofing in the first place.

Johnson said that the county had spent $500,000 to hurry up and rush through building the building.

So, what is more cost-effective now, to have more insulation in the walls or $1,500 for speakers, Hightower asked.

Johnson said he did not agree with the speakers and never would. He said he didn’t think that was the whole reason the speakers were purchased.

Johnson then talked about the $40,000 computer at the health department (bought before the current administrator), and she can’t even give answers to the questions that Johnson keeps asking about it costs to serve the people there.

However, Lancaster has been giving a weekly summary weekly since Johnson asked for the numbers.

Hightower told Johnson that he went over to work with Lancaster about this and tried to explain to her what he thought Johnson was asking for because she did not understand that Johnson wanted a cost analysis.

Hightower said that the commission had run off the last two health directors.

• Commissioner Johnson: School Resource Officer program.

McCullough said the commission just finished discussing the SRO Program and we signed a contract. I thought we were content with that.

Johnson said the commission signed the contract but they could change it anytime.

Johnson complained that SRO officers are given time off away from the schools so they can cover football games that evening.

“It used to be the school paid your off-duty officers to be the security for the extracurricular activities,” said Johnson.

Friend said that was his job, not Johnson’s, to be concerned about. At present, there are only four out of six SRO positions filled.

• Commissioner McCullough: Consider an option to charge cities for services provided by the county.

Regarding the charging of cities for law enforcement and jail fees, Johnson said that there had never been a resolution to not charge the cities. He thought Friend should just follow the state statute and charge the cities.

Friend said that the commission would have to make a resolution for him to do that.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough started reading off research he had done on what other cities are charged for law enforcement services from their counties.

Johnson said he had no problem with charging the cities but they should also charge the school districts with extracurricular activities and keep the officers in the schools. “They are not going to take ownership until they have to pay for it,” said Johnson.

Friend said that hearing this could make peoples’ heads explode. Some of those cities have part-time law enforcement.

“(Former) Commissioner (Rick) James was very much against charging anybody for anything when it came to our cities,” said Friend.

Hightower said that he wanted to be able to provide the sheriff the direction. He agreed with the sheriff that they would have to agree upon the directions because the sheriff’s office might not have the manpower to do the direction.

Friend said that if charging the cities was a course that the county was thinking about, then the cities would need to be deeply involved in the discussion.

Johnson said that it was Friend’s idea to ask for money from the cities.

Friend countered that comment, saying it was not his idea. “Their heads are going to blow off when they hear this.”

McCullough said the last thing he wants to do is charge the cities.

Hightower discussed mutual aid agreements between the cities and the county.

Friend suggested that maybe the entities did not want a mutual aid agreement because a contract locks both sides into doing things. Right now, they are working well together without a formal agreement.

In other concerns, Hightower said the county needs to stop running the airport. He added that even if the current grant application for the airport is awarded, the commission needs to look at plans to stop running the airport.

Hightower also said that the commission should inventory its buildings to determine which ones needed the most work.

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