As the county prepares to fashion a 1996 budget, one commissioner is renewing his call for cuts.
Undaunted by suggestions that his goal for budget cuts isn't reasonable, Douglas County Commissioner Jim Chappell says a departmental budget presentation earlier this week has strengthened his resolve.
``At the risk of sounding trite, we really have forgotten who we're working for,'' Chappell said.
On Monday, Douglas County Extension Director Dennis Bejot asked the commission for a 1996 budget of $353,678, an increase of 10.85 percent over current levels.
Chappell wants to cut the county budget by 5 percent and not build in an allowance for inflation, which effectively would reduce expenditures next year by 8 percent. Commissioners will consider other department requests and approve the entire county budget this summer.
Although the Extension proposal was accompanied by two more-austere alternative requests, Chappell said he feared the request for an increase meant department heads hadn't taken him seriously.
``If that's what everybody's doing, I think I might as well check out, use some of their travel money and go to a seminar,'' Chappell said, explaining that increased travel budgets were high on his hit list.
``If we could keep everybody at home here in sunny, tropical Douglas County, we could save some significant cash,'' he said.
Hitting the road
Bejot had asked that the office's allocation for travel be bumped from $8,800 to $10,000. Although agents do sometimes travel to out-of-state conferences, Bejot said most travel was related to services provided to the public and to required training.
``That's just a sign of the service we provide and the demand,'' Bejot said.
Culling a total for the amount of expense employees incur traveling to seminars and conventions is difficult. In most departments' budgets, the cost of travel for mandatory training and continuing education is indistinguishable from optional trips and in some cases also is mingled with travel directly related to job duties.
Chappell said he thought it might even be appropriate to ask management-level employees to pay the cost of travel that does not directly benefit the county.
``I understand that it's important for department heads to be muckity-mucks in their professional association,'' he said. ``At some point it's got to go on their tab because it's going on their resume.''
Built to last
Chappell also wants to dissuade department heads from replacing equipment before it's worn out and to practice the same cost-consciousness that's required in the private sector.
For example, Chappell said having department heads and administrative staff use cellular car phones when they're out of the office on business may save time, but each call costs money.
Commission Chairman Louie McElhaney, usually the commission's chief penny-pincher, says the Extension office's preferred budget didn't strike him as remarkable because it was accompanied by two lower alternatives.
Although he says he'll be content if the commission can pass a hold-the-line budget for 1996 and that Chappell's reduction goal is overly ambitious, McElhaney says he hasn't gone soft on fiscal matters.
``I want (county staff) to make some tough decisions and justify what they do get,'' he said.
McElhaney said he shares Chappell's concern that staff tries to replace equipment and vehicles more quickly than the private sector would tolerate.
``I do think (local governments) do expect to have the best of things,'' he said.
Keeping tabs on travel
However, McElhaney also is concerned about the amount of traveling employees do. He has asked County Administrator Craig Weinaug to provide quarterly reports on who's traveling, where they're going, why and how much it costs.
``I think if we are tracking that it will take care of the problem if there is a problem,'' McElhaney said.
Commissioner Mark Buhler said the concern for employee travel was overblown and said he's satisfied that the trips employees take are directly related to mandatory training, continuing education and professional development.
``The word `travel' does not mean vacation,'' Buhler said.
Buhler fears the long-term costs of delaying some expenditures may actually be higher than spending money now. He does not believe the push for austerity is realistic given the budgetary restraint the commission has shown in the past.
``It is (only realistic) if you expect people to be happy at their employment with no raise and you expect us to spend down ending balances and services not to be maintained,'' Buhler said.