Berrien County commissioner warns of snowballing spending

ST. JOSEPH — A Berrien County commissioner cast a lone vote against approving the 2020 budget Thursday, over concerns about escalating spending.

Before the 10-1 vote, Commissioner Ezra Scott, of New Buffalo, pointed out that the $64.2 million general fund budget, a 5.4 percent increase over the previous year, required taking money from reserve funds to balance the books.

He said that during budget hearings, he asked each department head to reduce spending by 10 percent, but the initial projections showed a $5.5 million spending gap. That was narrowed by some spending cuts and identifying additional revenue, as well as appropriating reserves.

Scott anticipated an even larger budget next year, as spending “continues to snowball,” he said.

Administrator Bill Wolf said some of the circumstances were unique this year, that he doesn’t anticipate will be repeated next year.

The county put more money into its retiree health care fund than it has previously, Wolf said. While the county had put around $2.7 million into the fund annually, actuaries recommended kicking in $4.4 million. Wolf said he and Doug James, director of financial services, “swallowed hard” and approved the deposit.

That required borrowing $1.3 million from the Delinquent Tax Revolving Fund, Wolf explained. That fund is replenished through interest and penalties on unpaid taxes.

That’s a big reason why the budget saw “a serious uptick” this year, Wolf said. He said he would be “very surprised” if they had to use the Delinquent Tax Fund next year to cover the $4.4 million contribution to the health care fund.

He noted that some counties don’t even offer their retirees health care benefits. Others don’t put money away to cover future obligations, he said. Berrien County, on the other hand, has around 50 percent of that liability in reserve, “which puts us in a class of our own.”

Board Chairman Mac Elliott said county officials try to be conservative about using these reserve funds. If you take money out faster than it comes in, eventually the well runs dry, he said.

Personnel costs, including salaries and benefits, make up 70 percent of the budget, Elliott said, and many of those are dictated by contracts.

Those costs increased by $6 million for the coming year, including a $3.8 million jump in costs for benefits from 2019.

The county also saw a large number of retirements this year, which required pay-outs for unused vacation days that boosted spending.

Scott also said he was concerned that they couldn’t rely on state funding because of the budget impasse between the governor and legislators. Items vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer include reimbursements for secondary road patrols and for local jails holding state prison inmates.

Berrien’s veterans services office also has taken a hit, and had to lay off two part-time staffers.

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