ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County is proposing a $64.2 million general fund budget for 2020, a $3.2 million increase over the current year, according to figures presented to the board of commissioners during a public hearing Thursday.

That includes $54.8 million in expenditures and $9.3 million in transfers out to other funds.

Officials said a lot of the expenditures were out of their hands, and that they worked hard to close a spending gap of $5.5 million at the beginning of talks.

Commissioner Ezra Scott said that, as department heads laid out their spending recommendations, he asked them to slash spending by 10 percent, “and we cut a lot of the Sears Christmas wish list things” to arrive at a balanced budget.

Administrator Bill Wolf, Finance Director Doug James and others “did a yeoman’s job” of cutting spending and finding additional revenue, Scott said.

Commissioners will vote on the budget resolution Thursday.

Personnel costs, including salaries and benefits, are expected to increase by $6 million next year, reported James. Increases in health care costs also inflated spending, added board Chairman Mac Elliott.

Hagar Township resident Adolf Pelzer complained that the general fund increase of 5.4 percent was well above the rise in cost of living index, and he suggested that the county hold its budget increases to that figure.

The federal government spends money it doesn’t have, “and you guys are no better,” Pelzer said.

“It would be nice if it could be capped at the COLA (Cost of Living Allowance), but we don’t have that leverage,” Elliott responded, explaining that most of the personnel cost increases, which make up half the general fund budget, are set by contracts. He said the raises provided to employees were “modest.”

Benefit costs are jumping by $3.8 million from 2019, to $27 million, and salaries are increasing by $2.2 million, to $45.4 million.

The county has 775 full-time equivalent employees, up 8.7 from the previous year. New hires included six public defenders (covered through a state grant), two public safety employees, one person at both the road department and information technology office, and 1.5 in the judicial branch.

The cots of commissioners’ salaries and per diem payments for additional meetings is set at $218,361.

In all, total expenditures are projected at $177.3 million, with $167 million in anticipated revenue. That gap will be covered by a $10 million in transfers from unused fund balances and other sources, including $1.3 million from the Delinquent Tax Revolving Fund, which collects interest and penalties for unpaid taxes. Appropriations were reduced by $500,000 for the health department and $538,000 for two child care funds.

Wolf explained that the $10 million will not come from the general fund balance, which he said remains at a “healthy level.”

Wolf said Berrien should be lauded for putting away money to cover future retiree health care costs, which he said many counties don’t do.

Capital ideas

Prior to the budget hearing, Wolf presented proposed major expenditures for projects and equipment. He emphasized that the recommendations “are not an authority for anyone to buy or do anything,” and each expenditure will have to come back to commissioners for approval.

The capital budget includes $4 million in proposed items, with $1.2 million to complete the jail renovations, $1.1 million for new courthouse computer software and hardware, and $1.6 million in mostly maintenance items. Another $300,000 in smaller items would come from the general fund budget.

Wolf recommended a transfer of $3.9 million from the Delinquent Tax Revolving Fund. This is not unusual and is less than last year’s transfer of $4.3 million, Wolf said.

The budget includes purchasing 10 vehicles at $400,000 for the sheriff’s department, animal control and the motor pool. The county has 170 vehicles in their fleet, which are shuttled between departments.

The capital budget includes $135,176 for parks, with big-ticket items including repairing the Madeline Bertrand River Shelter and acquiring property adjacent to the Paw Paw River Park.

Commissioner Bill Chickering, who sits on the county’s parks advisory board, questioned why those projects made it to the top of the list without any discussion of priorities.

“If anyone has projects that are more important, I’m all ears,” Wolf said.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak