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County spends 44.5%
more than its peers

Dramatically more spent on roads and bridges, dramatically less on sheriff and jail

Staff writers

Marion County is spending more taxpayer money per resident this year than any county of similar population in the state, according to a new research report.

The report lists the county as spending dramatically more on roads and bridges and dramatically less on law enforcement and jails.

Figures from the independent, Wichita-based Kansas Policy Institute indicate Marion County has budgeted to spend a total $1,290 per resident this year.

That is 44.5 percent more than the average of what the five next largest and five next smallest counties in population have budgeted to spend — $893 per resident.

Roads and bridges

The biggest area for above-average spending in Marion County is transportation, roads, and public works, which account for a little less than half of the county’s above-average spending.

Marion County is spending $496 per resident — more than double the $245 average of the five next largest and five next smallest counties.

The next biggest spender per resident on roads, bridges, and public works is Wilson County (Fredonia) at $313. Lowest is Allen County (Iola) at $211. Both are in southeastern Kansas.

Despite a relatively low population, Marion County has the fifth largest road system in the state, Commissioner Dan Holub said in response to the report.

With 1,600 miles of roads and more than 400 bridges, he said, “we’re a perfect grid.”

Among the 11 counties compared, Marion County encompasses the largest area — 943 square miles of land. Wilson County has 574; Allen, 503.

Among the peer group only Marshall County (Marysville), along the Nebraska border in northeastern Kansas, has roughly the same area as Marion County. However, it is spending only $242 per resident on roads and bridges, among the lowest totals in the group.

Holub questioned whether some of the counties in the peer group might rely, unlike Marion County, on townships for some road maintenance.

Half (including Marshall) do and half don’t, but the average spending of the half that do is only 4.4 percent less per person than the average spending of the half that don’t.

Commissioner Bob Hein suggested that part of the additional cost in Marion County was from catching up on asphalt maintenance deferred in previous years.

Sheriff and jail

Despite leading in transportation spending, Marion County is spending less than all 10 of the similarly sized counties on law enforcement — specifically sheriff’s offices and jails.

Marion County’s spending of $54 per resident for law enforcement is 60.7 percent less than the average of $134 being spent per resident in the 10 similarly sized counties.

The highest is $251 in Jackson County (Holton), north of Topeka. The next lowest after Marion County is $82 — still 51.9 percent more than what Marion County is spending — in Marshall County.

Holub said he wished Marion County could spend more on law enforcement to add more deputies, at least one detective, and a new jail, replacing one currently so crowded inmates are having to sleep on the floor.

“We give them every dime we can afford,” he said.

He said Marion County could shift spending to the sheriff’s office and jail if spending on roads and bridges decreased, but residents would complain.

“It’s about what people want to spend on,” he said. “It’s like the military. You want it when you need it but you don’t want to spend a lot when it’s not affecting you.”

Marion County, despite the presence of two major tourist attractions in Marion Reservoir and Marion County Park and Lake, manages to get by with fewer deputies than many similar counties, Hein said.

“By the time you put a deputy in a car, that’s a big chunk of change,” he said.

Overall spending

Roads, bridges, deputies, and jails account for only a portion of the spending difference.

The lowest spending county overall is Bourbon County (Fort Scott) in southeastern Kansas. It is spending just $619 per resident — less than half what Marion County is spending.

“The people of Bourbon County should be proud of their county government,” study author Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute, said in an interview. “They’ve found a way to deliver basic county services less expensively than other counties their size.”

The next highest spender after Marion County is Rice County (Lyons) in central Kansas. It is spending $1,226 per resident, 5 percent less than Marion County is spending.

“What this means in Marion County is up to local residents to decide,” Trabert said. “It could be that Marion County taxpayers want to spend that amount of money, particularly on roads and bridges. That’s something for them to decide.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean one county is more or less efficient than the others. All we’re trying to do is give them a baseline comparison so they know what other similar counties are doing.”

One way Marion County is attempting to improve efficiency is consolidating duties, Commissioner Randy Dallke said. When a department has a retirement or resignation, the commission is considering whether the position needs filled.

“I don’t think there’s been a full review of all the departments in three or four years,” Dallke said.

He thinks some departments could function with fewer employees, but nobody will say their department is too big.

“In today’s world, people are trying to protect their jobs as best they can,” Dallke said.

According to Trabert, who describes his organization as fiscally conservative and says it draws its resources from a broad base of small donors, the goal of his report was to create “a type of roadmap that didn’t exist.”

Copies of the report, the first such effort by Trabert’s group, were sent last week to every county commissioner in the state. Release was designed to occur while counties were considering budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

“Our goal was to be a part of the process when we might make the biggest difference,” he said.

Trabert concedes that his analysis is hindered by lack of state standards for consistent reporting of county budgets.

If the legislature were to require counties to report their spending in standardized categories, comparisons of spending priorities would be much easier.

However, that limitation goes away, Trabert said, when considering the bottom line of total spending, in which Marion County showed up as spending more than all 10 counties nearest in size to it.

The average population of the counties in 2009 was 12,323. They ranged from 9,474 to 16,104. Marion County was in the middle with 11,982 residents, according to 2009 estimates.

Other spending

Aside from leading in road and bridge spending and trailing in sheriff and jail spending, Marion County tended to fare above average in most other spending categories identified in Trabert’s report:

  • For court services, Trabert estimated that Marion County was spending $68 per resident, 36 percent above average. However, that amount included some general courthouse expenses in Marion County and five other counties in the group, making comparisons difficult.
  • For emergency services, including ambulance, Marion County is spending $105 per resident, 98.1 percent more than its peer counties. The highest spender is Allen County (Iola) at $146. The lowest is Jackson County (Holton) at $20.
  • For health and social services, Marion County is spending $47 per resident, the same as the average for its peer group. Marshall County (Marysville) is spending the most, $97, and Bourbon the least, $22.
  • For landfills, waste, and sewers, Marion County is spending $15 per resident, 58 percent less than average and second lowest in the group. Allen is spending the most, $240, while Neosho County (Erie) in southeastern Kansas is spending the least, $9.
  • Marion County is the leading spender for what Trabert’s report termed cultural services, including fair, museum, and park spending. Marion County is spending $20 per resident on those items, five times the average. The next highest spending county is Rice at $12. Bourbon and Neosho are the lowest at $1.
  • For general governmental services, including the appraiser, clerk, treasurer, and register of deeds offices, Marion County is spending $124 per resident, 7.8 percent above the average of $115. The highest spender is Rice at $201. The lowest is Neosho at $51.

Within that category, Marion County has the second most expensive appraiser’s cost, the third most expensive clerk’s cost, the fourth most expensive treasurer’s cost, and the seventh most expensive register-of-deeds cost, although some register-of-deeds costs, including Marion County’s, excluded technology costs while some did not.

Within law enforcement, Marion County has the second least expensive sheriff’s office. Not all counties budgeted jail and dispatch expenses separately.

Within court services, Marion County has the fourth least expensive county attorney’s office.

Last modified Aug. 4, 2010

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