Commissioner holds up approval of tuition bill to protest budget cuts

Jere McElhaney doesn’t mind giving the state a taste of its own financial bad medicine.

That’s why he’s decided against paying $24,000 in community college tuition bills that the Douglas County Commission is required by state law to cover.

McElhaney, commission chairman, is still smarting from the state’s decision this month to keep $900,000 in transfer funds the county was counting on for the first half of next year. Another $900,000 loss is expected to be added through the end of 2003.

McElhaney figures that if the county has to fill a $1.8 million budget hole it didn’t dig, the state may as well be forced to pick up a shovel.

“They are withholding funds that are payable to Douglas County,” McElhaney said. “My feeling is we should withhold these funds from the state.”

The bills, which came in last week, normally are paid within four or five business days, said Debbie Sparkes, the county’s budget specialist. But McElhaney is refusing to approve the payments, leaving the money in limbo for at least a few weeks.

That’s because there aren’t enough votes on the commission to approve the payments. With Commissioner Charles Jones’ resignation earlier this month to restore his eligibility for the state’s retirement fund — he’ll be sworn back in again Jan. 13 — only McElhaney and Commissioner Bob Johnson are eligible to vote.

And it takes a majority to get anything done.

Not that McElhaney’s colleagues really mind sticking it to the state — at least for a few weeks.

“It’s sort of a matter of protest,” Johnson said. “We’re playing games, like they’re playing games.”

The payments being withheld would go to three schools:

⢠$9,864 to Washburn University.

⢠$9,072 to Kansas City Kansas Community College.

⢠$5,064 to Highland Community College.

The payments would cover a share of tuition bills for Douglas County residents attending classes at the three schools. State law requires that counties pay $12 per credit hour for each resident enrolled.

McElhaney has opposed making such payments in the past, citing the Kansas Legislature’s earlier decision to rescind a pledge to drop the requirement. The requirement cost the county $383,161 in 2001; it expects to pay $390,000 next year.

That is, unless McElhaney succeeds in convincing his fellow commissioners to back his financial protest.

“It’s not a game,” he said.