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  • Last modified 152 days ago (June 21, 2017)

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Bureaucratic dollars and sense

Back when we had a democracy instead of a bureaucracy, county officials were required to publish, in newspaper legal notices, the payee and amount of every check they wrote.

Citizens would pore over the published lists of checks, technically called warrants, to make sure tax dollars weren’t being wasted.

Now that we’ve become thoroughly modern, nobody other than commissioners, clerks, and a small handful of others see warrants regularly, even though the totals can be staggering — more than $330,000 last month alone. And that doesn’t include payroll, which would bring the total amount of county checks last month to more than $813,000.

So what, exactly, did the county do with our $330,000 in May — the equivalent of $27 for each man, woman, and child in the county?

Drinking it up

While our oldest and youngest were drinking tap water at senior centers and schools, $267.45 went to buying filtered water from Culligan for dispatchers, health department workers, planning and zoning personnel, the county clerk’s office, the now empty economic development office, and workers at the waste transfer station.

Ten times as much, $2,779.41, went to pay for Verizon cell phones for such people as road and bridges workers, ambulance attendants, sheriff’s department employees, and the emergency management director, all of who also have costly county-provided radios, mainly handheld, to keep in touch.

Also getting cell phones were courthouse custodians, the county attorney, dispatchers (who rarely work outside the office), noxious weed workers, household hazardous waste workers, transfer station employees, recycling employees, county lake employees, the Women Infants and Children nutrition employees, and the Department on Aging employees.

The cost of those phones is in addition to the $2,061.49 paid to AT&T for landlines to the very same departments and others. And that doesn’t include the $2,006.19 paid for 911 lines.

Here at the newspaper, employees use cell phones all the time — their own phones, not company phones. In my “real” job at the University of Illinois, office land lines have been eliminated. Instead, offices have Skype online accounts, which almost always are forwarded to cell phones personally paid for.

Shopping at home(page)

Although all government units hereabouts are big on using only local banks regardless of price, when it comes to other supplies, they typically go out of the county to the lowest bidder.

Office supplies, which the county used to buy in great quantities from local businesses, now pretty well have to be purchased out of the county because local businesses couldn’t keep county accounts in competition with wholesalers. One such out-of-town place, Quill, based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, did $1,030.87 in business with nine county offices in May.

Printing still is done locally — albeit by only one print shop, Baker Bros. of Hillsboro, which got $1,244.69 from seven county offices.

So is computer repair, with Marion’s Great Plains Computers and Networking getting a whopping $10,232.50 in May — enough to make the county (or, at least, its taxpayers) seriously think about hiring an internal repair person rather than outsourcing the work.

Computer hardware and software, on the other hand, generally goes to another out-of-county venture, CDW, also based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, with $4,200.71 total from eight orders. Maybe someone confused Lincolnshire for Lincolnville.

Newspapers get money from the county, too. We at Hoch Publishing, the only newspapers in the county that qualify under state law to print public notices, received $1,035.80. Our competitors at the Hillsboro Free Press, which legally isn’t qualified to print official public notices, received $499.48. Another company that competes for advertising revenue, Marion’s Western Associates, received $489.14, mainly for T-shirts — which, as we all know, are an absolute necessity for effective county government.

Driving the issue home

Despite the county owning a huge fleet of vehicles, county employees received $1,079.15 in mileage reimbursement for driving their own vehicles at 53½ cents a mile.

That rate is something that even AAA says grossly overstates actual cost of driving, which it puts at around 30 cents a mile. The higher rate is based on an Internal Revenue Service calculation that places heavy emphasis on initial depreciation of a brand-new vehicle in the first mile it is driven off the dealer lot. The higher rate makes sense if it is for a car purchased exclusively for business use but makes no sense when applied to a personal car that would have had such depreciation regardless of whether it was used for business.

The biggest auto mileage claimants were Gayla Ratzlaff ($240.75) of the Department on Aging and Teresa Huffman ($170.13), formerly the economic development director. Both of their departments already have access to county-owned vehicles.

Even defeated former county commissioner Dan Holub got in the act, claiming $71.16 for attending out-of-town meetings of groups for which he still represents the county.

A total of $8,129.20 went to largely out-of-county lawyers, including $3,870 to Seth Meyer of Dodge City and $2,091.82 to Boyer and Price of McPherson.

Internet — and, in some cases, cable TV — from Eagle Communications cost $721.50. There also were charges for satellite TV from AT&T.

Credit where credit is due

County credit cards were another source of employee charges.

In her final five days on the job, Huffman charged $430.07 to her county credit card, including $81 to a Hillsboro greenhouse, $3.35 to a Topeka café, $336 to a Winfield bed and breakfast, and $9.72 to a Winfield buffet. Three days earlier she also charged $4.83 at a McDonald’s in El Dorado.

County credit cards were used eight other times to pay for food out of the county. Typically, county workers on out-of-town assignment expect the county to pay for their meals — even if they would dine at much the same place, for much the same cost, while working in the county.

The $70 in additional out-of-town meals included dining at such places as Arby’s, Chipotle, KFC, McDonald’s, and Panda Express in Great Bend, Junction City, Kansas City, McPherson, and Topeka.

Also charged on a county credit card was a single bill of $112.44 to the Hillsboro Pizza Hut by emergency management director Randy Frank.

Dollar General, which has two local stores but is not locally owned, seems to have been a big source of general supplies purchased locally by credit card, with four purchases totaling $135.29.

However, the county’s biggest sources for non-specialized supplies appear to be outside the county, with $488.29 for a single order from the out-of-county Lowes lumber and hardware store despite several hardware / lumber companies inside the county.

In contrast, the only credit card purchase of hardware and lumber items locally was a single purchase of $81.67 from The Lumberyard in Hillsboro.

Fueling controversy?

Although the county buys vehicle fuel in bulk locally, county employees made four local and five distant credit card purchases from fuel or convenience stores: $81.67 locally and $102.22 in Abilene, Emporia, Hays, Newton, and Topeka.

And all of this combined is just a tenth of the non-payroll spending by the county in May.

Do you suppose a small fraction of this spending could be diverted to something a little more productive in the long term, like saving the historic Bowron Building?

It’s been around for 131 years and needs $500,000 in repairs (which private enterprise would be hard-pressed to provide) to be good for another 131 — many times the expected lifetime of the metal shed that county commissioners seem to want to build instead.

Do the math. Bowron repairs would cost $318.07 a month over the expected life of the building. That’s just $50.62 more per month than what the county is paying for bottled water for its employees — or only one-ninth of what it is paying to buy cell phones for employees who probably already have their own.

A century from now, which purchase will prove to make the most sense? Or does sense even matter? This is, after all, the same government that two weeks ago denied that lake superintendent Steve Hudson was forbidden to take vacation but this week says it needs to hire two people to replace him so vacations no longer need to be denied. Go figure.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 21, 2017

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