Officials debate how to handle 911 cash woes
Keeping a close eye on taxpayer money was a theme at the Morgan County Commission meeting last Thursday, January 12.
Commissioners turned their attention to movement of funds inside the courthouse, questioning how county money has been used to cover a cash flow problem in the 911 office since September.
Emergency Services Director Dave Michael was asked to explain how his office had run into shortfalls in September and how he was covering his department’s bills without sufficient income.
Tower project drained cash
“In the construction of the primary tower site, I spent money faster than our cash flow. In essence, we’ve been running a deficit in cash flow since Labor Day,” Michael said.
Upset about the problem, Commission President Stacy Dugan was pointed in her questioning, both of Michael and fellow commission Brad Close, who sits on the 911 board.
Close said he knew about the cash shortage, and the 911 board had stopped spending money, beyond payroll and basic operating expenses, to address the problem.
“If this was discovered at Labor Day, why am I finding out about it at the end of December?” asked Dugan, who wanted more details about how the county had been paying 911 expenses during the last fiscal quarter.
“You can blame me if you like,” Close said.
County paying 911 bills
Chief Deputy Cathy Payne of the County Clerk’s office answered some questions, describing how the county pays salaries for 911 employees out of the general fund, then is reimbursed for half of that payroll by the 911 office account.
Payne said there recently hasn’t been enough cash in the 911 account to make that reimbursement, or cover other operating costs like rent or utilities.
In all, the county has covered almost $80,000 in 911 expenses since September.
“His account doesn’t have the money to reimburse us,” Payne said.
Michael said he spent his cash reserves to quickly finish construction of the new 911 tower next to War Memorial Hospital, because he didn’t want to lose the chance of getting free communications equipment installed there.
Michael estimated that his office would get their next quarterly payment of 911 wireless fees by early February, which would put the department in better standing.
He said one of his problems was the length of time it takes for grant money to materialize, even after it is awarded to his office.
Both Close and Michael emphasized that the 911 office is still operating within its budget, but was short on cash.
“Has this happened to you before? Is it every year we’re covering your budget because you’re not getting grants on time?” Dugan asked Michael.
“Yes,” he said.
“I want to know how it got to this and how we can learn from this,” Dugan said.
“The fault is mine for constructing too fast,” said Michael.
Commission should decide
Dugan said in the future she wants to know if the general fund is covering department’s expenses because they are short on cash. She said the commissioners should be the ones to decide whether to spend county funds that way.
Close argued that the commission didn’t have any decisions to make about the 911 office, because the 911 board had addressed the problem.
Resident Dawn White disagreed, saying the payment of 911 payroll and operating expenses was an “extension of credit” by the county, and the commissioners should have made an official decision about continuing to pay those expenses.
County officials confirmed that they would have agreed to support the 911 office if Michael had approached them earlier, seeking financial help.
“That’s what should have happened,” said Dugan.
A “learning experience”
Dugan said she wanted the county to look into a Purchase Order system, by which other county offices would officially request general funds when needed.
Close agreed they should consider such a system.
He also said the 911 office now has a five-year plan for capital outlay.
Michael said monitoring costs before the start of a building project would be key to avoiding a similar problem in the future.
County Clerk Debra Kesecker said she got the feeling her staff was being accused of handling the situation the wrong way.
“I don’t want one commissioner coming in and telling my girls to do something. Decide on it and give it in writing with all three of you signing it so I have an audit trail,” said Kesecker.
Funds requests from groups
In other financial business, county officials voted unanimously to change the way community groups request public funds for their projects.
The new procedure, effective January 12, asks groups to provide more in-depth financial information about their organizations, provide a budget for any project they seek county money for, and show proof of how they spent the public funds.
A checklist outlines what information must accompany a request of funds from the county.
The commissioners had discussed the change as one way for their office to be more accountable for where taxpayer money is being spent.
The commissioners accept fund requests on a rolling basis, but only allocate that money in January and June.
A full application packet is available at the County Commission office in the courthouse, or will be posted soon on the county government’s website.