Linn County Commissioners, from left, Jim Johnson, Danny McCullough and Jason Hightower had a spirited discussion over the budget and other issues on Monday, Feb. 6 (Screen capture/Linn County KS livestream)
MOUND CITY - After Linn County Commissioner Jim Johnson questioned expenditures on the claims report on Monday, Feb. 6, the commission meeting took an unexpected turn.
Johnson questioned Linn County Health Department Administrator Missy Lancaster about some of the costs associated with the health department’s building in Pleasanton, including an awning so that nurses could do testing for COVID and other communicable diseases in their vehicles without bringing them into the building.
He was also concerned about speakers that piped music into the examination rooms because there was no sound insulation in the building. Both of those projects were done under grants and did not use county tax dollars. (See the separate story in this week’s Journal.)
Following Johnson’s questioning, Commission Chair Danny McCullough expressed frustration and said that the commission was not going to do hearings on seven budgets a day for 2024 as they did last August for 2023. He said he wanted to have each department go in to detail about how their department operates and what their plan is three years from now.
“I want to know every single little detail with every department,” said McCullough. “I think that’s how to do a budget.”
McCullough said that he would like to use the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to increase the pay for the county employees.
However, Economic Development Director Jessica Hightower said that if the ARPA money was used for payroll, there is a whole other level of reporting that the county had to do.
“The sheriff’s department is losing employees left and right,” McCullough continued. “We can’t retain any employees.”
“We have no plan of what we are going to do,” he said.
He indicated that he didn’t like that department heads were getting grilled by commissioners whenever they make a purchase request that is within their budget.
“Department heads are getting beat up, (Sheriff Kevin Friend) is probably not going to run again and (County Clerk David Lamb) is getting ready to retire,” said McCullough. “What’s our plan?”
Johnson said that no one had an idea who was going to run in the next election.
“We are going to keep running the county the way we are?” asked McCullough.
“I have no road grader in my district,” said McCullough. “Do you guys?”
Johnson and Commissioner Jason Hightower both said they did.
Hightower stated that the county had just hired a new person in the north shop a couple of weeks ago.
Johnson said that Miami County was having the same problem. He said that it was not about the money, it’s about the people.”
“Would you go to work for $17 an hour?” asked McCullough. “But we are expecting everybody else to, and we expect the county to run efficiently.”
“The most important thing is the employees that make this county run and make our job easier,” said McCullough.
“I haven’t slept at all, I came up here on Sunday to look around and think,” said McCullough, “Kevin (Friend) is washing the floors.”
McCullough said that the county does not take care of its in-house people. He said that the county gives free dispatch service and free jail to the cities of the county.
“We don’t have a plan. I don’t have a plan. What are we going to do?” He asked.
McCullough asked if the county had a contract with Pleasanton for the airport. He said nobody lands there. It’s not a Federal Aviation Administration airport because it has solar lights.
McCullough said there were lives on the line at the airport, and then asked if it takes somebody’s life to address them.
Commissioner Hightower said “What do we do, Mr. President? Tell us.”
Hightower said it did not do any good to have a meeting and just complain about other people. He said the commissioners needed to have a productive meeting where ideas are thrown out and talked about and developed into possible solutions.
Johnson said the commission just keeps growing the health department, with a budget of $500,000 for the health department last year. The commission needs to figure out how many people are going to the health department, maybe Linn County can do something cheaper. Four counties south of us do it cheaper.
Johnson said when we talk about an awning there (at the other counties), it’s a tent. Their budgets are probably less than $750,000 per county.
“Last week you guys were willing to spend $6,500 for a sign on the highway,” said Commissioner Hightower.
Hightower asked if the county was just not going to take care of the low income people in the county.
“Let’s look and see at the dollars we are spending to do that,” said Johnson.
Does it make sense to you that officers are starting at $20 per hour in Pleasanton and then they are being sent to boot camp, said McCullough. And then they get free dispatch and free jail.
Sheriff Kevin Friend stepped in and told the commissioners that Kansas statute would have the county charge the cities for jailing their prisoners but the commissioners in the past had made the determination that cities would not be charged.
Friend said if the commission wanted to charge the cities, it could. He said that back in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s the county charged the cities.
Commissioner Hightower said that he felt that the county’s mutual aid agreements with the cities on fire and police should be updated.
McCullough asked if it was right that Pleasanton made 2,000 traffic stops and 1,660 were traffic alone. They said they were using their field training officers.
He worried that because of current policies Linn County would be a ghost county in a few years.
McCullough said, “We don’t utilize our taxes right. We have a hospital district in La Cygne, Kansas. They have $1.2 million and its not countywide. That’s crazy to me.”
“Do you think it is right that only La Cygne gets that hospital district?” asked McCullough.
Commissioner Hightower pointed out that’s how it was formed, the people voted on that.
“We are talking about other people and the decisions they are making,” said Hightower. “We need to be taking care of ourselves and making the decisions we need to make.”
“There’s not a damn thing in this county that is running right if you want to know the truth, and we have got to do something about it,” said McCullough.
“We don’t have control of that hospital district,” said Hightower.
“We have control of the county, we need to figure that out,” said McCullough.
“Everything I say, you guys are coming back at me. You are totally contradicting yourselves,” said McCullough.
“We are so far behind in our (salary) matrix because we don’t stay up with inflation across the country. We have no plan,” said McCullough.
“There is no plan, there should have been a plan before I was even born,” said McCullough.
Johnson asked if McCullough voted on the 2023 budget.
Johnson and McCullough, along with former Commissioner Rick James voted to approve the budget. However, McCullough voted against adopting a revenue-neutral budget after being warned by County Clerk David Lamb that it could have dire consequences in the years to come.
“Shame on me, shame on you,” said McCullough.
“I am throwing out ideas because I am lost here, we need to figure it out,” said McCullough. “We owe it to our people to try to figure it out, to get a plan together to try and take care of them”.
Johnson tried to bring up spending from the past and McCullough said they were moving forward from now on, not looking at the past.
“Let’s move on,” he said.