GREG LOWER

ERIE – Neosho County Commissioners will continue budget discussions at special meetings Monday after a public hearing Thursday evening.

The commission will meet for a work session with accountant Rodney Burns at 1 pm Monday and with department heads for a line-item breakdown of their budget requests. The commission will also meet at 10:30 am Monday for a business meeting on items tabled from Thursday’s nearly six-hour meeting.

After the public hearing on the budget with no resident comments, Commission Chair Gail Klaassen said she was opposed to the budget as published and said it was reckless and unfair.

The published budget sets maximum spending limits for the coming year, and officials are able to spend below the limits or move funds within line items, Burns said.

The proposed budget sets a property tax levy of 53.242 mills to fund 2021, with the first payment due in January. The levy is down from the 2020 levy of 53.48 mills.

But Klaassen said the budget has an overall spending increase of $1.4 million. The largest hike is in the Road and Bridge department, with a $748,000 increase.

Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown said later in the meeting that he set his request based on a worst-case scenario.

Several county departments requested salary increases for their employees, although some did not.

Part of Klaassen’s concerns are with the 2022 budget. She said there is a lot of uncertainty about 2021, and she is concerned about making commitments for one year that could impact the next. One of those concerns was about the completion of the Neosho Ridge Wind project and when the company would begin making payments in lieu of taxes. Officials are also uncertain about government relief payments from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic impact.

Tempers appeared to flare when Klaassen mentioned a Democratic win in the upcoming election. Commissioner David Orr said she pushed his hot button, but it was hard to tell if either side’s ribbing was good-natured.

“Either way, it’s going to be a rough winter,” Klaassen said. “I just want to get through the winter.”

Orr had proposed cutting the county attorney’s budget by $20,000. He said the department did not itemize its request, which included an $8,000 increase.

“You all need to be comfortable with what you are adopting,” Burns said.

Other business

In other business, St. Paul Fire Chief Wyatt Westhoff met with the commission  on his request for digital radio equipment. St. Paul has requested $35,000 for the project.

Orr said federal COVID-19 relief funding might be available, but Westhoff said he had discussed that and the proposal does not qualify. Westhoff suggested using funds from the Neosho Ridge Wind PILOT funds.

But Orr said he is not a friend of Westhoff because of comments Westhoff made on social media. Orr said Westhoff opposed the Neosho Ridge project, and should not benefit from it. Orr also said the PILOT funds should first benefit the area inside the project footprint, and if approved, St. Paul would have a better system than the county itself has.

Westhoff said St. Paul is trying to get a grant for a truck. 

“All that I can say is, we need help,” he said.

St.Paul, in the southeast part of the county, provides mutual assistance to Galesburg in the Neosho Ridge area and to Crawford County. Westhoff said his equipment isn’t capable of communication with Crawford County, but he cannot ask that county for money.

Commissioners also met with Jason Thompson of Erie to discuss improvements to 4th Street between Main and the railroad tracks, a street used by county trucks. He said the city is applying for a grant from the state for the third time, and the state wants to see some cooperation between the city and the county, including county funding and a letter of support.

The deadline to apply for the grant is Oct. 2 and it will be awarded in November or December. The commission will discuss the proposal at its meeting Monday, which is also the day the Erie city council meets.

Commissioners opened bids from five banks on financing for the courthouse heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The bid approval was also tabled to Monday.

County resident Dusty Elsworth raised questions in the public comment portion of the meeting about Neosho Ridge developer Apex’s use of 120th, 130th and 140th roads between Elk and Chase roads. He said a county resolution bans commercial traffic.

County Counselor Seth Jones said Elsworth’s question is legitimate, and he has not determined if the county’s road use agreement with Apex overrides the resolution, of which he had not been aware.

Elsworth also questioned the process for Apex to replace county-owned road structures under the agreement and if the work should be let for bids instead of contracted at Apex’s discretion. He questioned the county’s payments to Jones’ law firm, and also supported Orr in his criticism of Klaassen at the Sept. 9 meeting.

 

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