By CRISTINA JANNEY
Sixteen outside agencies presented requests Monday night to the Ellis County Commission for a total of $1.073 million.
The commission is facing a budget shortfall for the coming budget year and has already indicated cuts to outside agencies will be between $150,000 and $300,000.
The Aging Council recommended total reductions for all its programs from $133,627 in 2019 to $112,750 for 2020. The Humane Society of the High Plains decreased its request from $4,500 to $3,000.
The county is required by law to fund High Plains Mental Health, which has the largest allocation at $280,000. Its uses a formula to determine its request based in part on population, resident usage and county valuation. Its request was down about $1,000.
The Ellis County Historical Society requested $96,767 in 2020, the same amount it requested in 2019.
Lee Dobratz, historical society director, received sharp criticism from Commissioner Butch Schlyer for its lack of a long-rang plan for sustainability.
A portion of the plaster on a wall collapsed in historical society’s main brick building June 1, Dobratz said. The damage was caused by water seepage. Emergency repairs were made, but collections from two rooms had to be moved to the adjoining brick church for safe keeping.
“We currently face two large obstacles, Dobratz said. “Our building is becoming direly in need of replacement and our funding continues to lower. Just a few years ago, we were allocated $120,000 per year from the county. … When I took over in 2016, thrifty spending was not as common as it is now. I immediately cut expenses until I better understood the needs of our organization.
“By the time I created the budget proposed here for 2020, I had cut line items to the bare minimum that it takes to stay open. Our fixed costs of utility, maintenance, insurance and off-site rental are rising mostly due to emergency repairs to the structures we possess.”
Dobratz said the historical society is working on a plan for a new building as well as a fundraising for an endowment.
However, she said if funding is reduced at this time, the historical society would have to cut staff.
Schlyer reminded Dobratz the county already has left positions in many departments unfilled as a result of the budget crisis.
“If you have to eliminate positions, so be it,” he said. “I guess I am not going to be heart-felt for that at this point in time. Our staff in Ellis County could be looking at some real dire hardships coming next year.”
GrowHays, formerly the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, presented a request for $50,000. The agency did not request any funds in 2018 and 2019, but received between $125,000 and $47,500 in past years. It has been spending down reserves. However, director Doug Williams said that is not sustainable over time.
Despite changing its name, location, board makeup and director, the mission of the organization remains the same, Williams said — business creation, retention, expansion and recruitment.
“What it boils down to is growing the tax base — that is what we are supposed to do,” he said. “As I look at issues facing Ellis County, and I realize they are substantial, the most productive method of solving these problems is absolutely growing the tax base, increasing taxes and sales tax. While cuts may be necessary, growing the tax base is overall the best long-term solution by far.”
GrowHays has enough funding to last through 2019 and part of 2020, depending on private funding. However, long-term, Williams said the organization will not be sustainable if it does not receive public funding.
Commissioner Dustin Roths served in the past on the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development board.
“This is something at the most micro level of government we have to be aggressive about in terms of growing our tax base,” Roths said, “especially in western Kansas, northwest Kansas and rural America in general. If you are not aggressive, if you are not growing, you’re dying. …
“My thought for fellow commissioners is that if we don’t figure out a way to do some sort of funding for economic development for Ellis County, we are going to have to do it on our own with our own staff, and we can see the money they are asking for here —$50,000 … we all know that is basically one employee.”
During the KAYS Morning Show on Tuesday, Schlyer also said he thought supporting economic development is important.
County Administrator Phillip Smith-Haines said although funding is tight this year, if the commission decides to fund GrowHays, the county will come up with the money in the budget.
The Center for Life Experience was not funded last year through the regular budget process, but received a $1,000 special allocation from the county commission. For 2020, it has requested $6,000 as it transitions from the umbrella of the First Presbyterian Church to an independent community nonprofit organization.
The center offers grief support groups as well is the support agency for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Roths said he understood the need for the center and other outside nonprofits for funds and valued the services they provide, but he said he thought nonprofits should be supported through donations and not taxes.
“One of my biggest concerns about government funding of a lot of these types of organizations that we are talking about for outside funding is the difference between a tax and a donation,” he said. “I think it is why we keep harping on it. I think anybody who has been successful and has extra money to give should look at this list of organizations that we are funding and really consider a donation to them.
“I love the idea of funding through church organizations,” he said. “The main reason for that is I feel that is coming from a point of love. It is not from coercion. It is great because it really ties into the people who give actually caring about the organization and becoming a part of the organization and becoming part of its success.”
Smith-Haines and Schlyer said Tuesday morning they did not anticipate cuts to the agencies would be across the board. The commissioners will begin to discuss specific funding amounts for the agencies at their meeting next Monday.