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Proposed increase in JECC budget causes some to see red

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
JOHNSON COUNTY– The board that oversees the Johnson County Emergency Communications Center (JECC) has been asked to approve a budget increase for fiscal year 2013.
And some feel it’s too big a request.
The seven-member JECSA (Joint Emergency Communication Service Agency) Policy Board met last Friday, Nov. 18, to hear a budget presentation from Executive Director Gary Albrecht, who proposed a 26 percent increase in financing over last year. Fiscal year 2012’s approved budget for the facility, its equipment, administrative costs and operations was $2,995,936, funded through a 74¢ levy to Johnson County taxpayers.
For the upcoming FY 2013, Albrecht proposed a total budget of $3,785,209.
Preceding Albrecht’s presentation was a public hearing on the proposed budget, and a few members of the public took the opportunity to question the increase, as well as the way the new budget was presented; that is, prepared by Albrecht without board input, published in local newspapers as per Iowa’s public notification requirements, and later presented to the board for discussion and approval.
County Supervisor and JECSA policy board chair Pat Harney explained the flow of information went that way to meet the time constraints of publication requirements and the county’s budget process timetable.
Iowa City resident Bob Welsh suggested the JECSA board had it backward.
“I think you should say to your staff, ‘Redo this budget and come in asking (for an increase) of not more than… whether three percent or five percent... but give them a target. They are smart enough to do that in the next 24 hours or 48 hours so there is not a time constraint,” Welsh said.
JECSA board member John Lundell, of Coralville’s city council, told Welsh he disagreed with putting such limitations on the JECC director.
“It is extremely dangerous to come in with a percentage when you’re talking public safety and an operation like this,” said Lundell. “Maybe, if it were parks and rec. or something, but when we are talking about a mission of public safety, we have to see what it takes to reach that point. It’s dangerous to pick some arbitrary number going in and say ‘You can’t be above that.’”
Welsh countered Lundell’s argument about public safety.
“My guess is that Coralville has not given a blank check to either the Coralville Fire Department or the Coralville Police department,” Welsh said. He suggested JECSA establish a baseline budget, and the director create a list of critical needs beyond the base amount, requests that could be voted on individually.
County resident Terry Dahms offered a suggestion he characterized as an ultimatum:
“You should come up with a budget that is either flat or… no more than five percent (increase). If you can’t do that, then I think you should resign en mass and go back and find representatives from your constituencies that can come back with a budget that is more reasonable.”
Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan had specific concerns about the budget, the facility’s governance and the way information about the financials were shared with the public.
Sullivan said holding the public hearing at 7:30 in the morning limited the public’s opportunity to weigh in on the issue, and that the document put forward to the public lacked sufficient detail. Sullivan also agreed it made no sense for the executive director to create a budget proposal and publish it before the policy board reviewed it in a public session.
“Obviously that has caused you at least a little headache,” Sullivan said to the policy board. “I know there has been some debate as to who saw what and when, but this board ought to have public discussion before it goes out to publication.”
Sullivan’s main concerns centered around the projected increase in operation costs and the amount of cash reserves requested.
JECC, a collaborative project between Johnson County Emergency Management, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the public safety agencies in Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty, brings together the county’s various dispatch and emergency response services under one roof. The facility is funded through a countywide property tax levied on all Johnson County residents, currently at 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, before the residential rollback.
While the proposed increase in operation expenses amounts to 26 percent, Sullivan’s math comes from the difference between the current net property taxes of $2,662,570– the facility’s 2012 revenues– and the amount of property taxes proposed to fund the FY 2013 JECC budget of $3,785,209, which calculates to a 43 percent increase.
“The proposed budget increase is way too high. We’ve got some fantastic public servants on the user advisory committee, but when they come into their individual councils and ask for a 43 percent increase you’d laugh at them,” Sullivan said. “Just looking at the economy today, everybody is talking flat budgets or even reducing things. I have serious concerns about something that approaches five percent (increase) let alone 43 percent. It’s out of line with things other governments are trying to do right now.”
In FY 2012, the JECC’s approved budget of $2,995,936 required a $333,336 draw on its cash reserves in order to meet expenses. It is essential to have cash on hand in case of emergency failures or unforeseen expenditures, but the amount to place into reserves has, from the beginning, caused dissension even among JECSA board members.
Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek noted he has long advocated for a smaller reserve.
“Last year it was voted that our reserves would be $1.2 million, and that’s incredibly high,” said Pulkrabek.
Sullivan agreed, saying that the Johnson County Board of Supervisors has the authority and capacity to bond for emergency expenses should the JECC experience equipment failure or infrastructure problems.
“I believe this group should keep reserves extremely low,” said Sullivan. “The board can bond to replace any of that equipment, and it can be done in a matter of a few days. We have enough in our reserves that we could pay immediately, then bond for it in a few days to pay it back. It can be done as quickly as if you had money in the bank.”
The policy board agreed last Friday to hold a budget work session on Monday, Nov. 28, to work out exactly how much of a cash reserve is appropriate, and possible ways to establish consistency in determining the amount from year to year.
Also up for discussion will be final budget amounts. Albrecht said in a telephone interview after Friday’s meeting that since his initial proposal, there have been adjustments to certain line items that will decrease the overall budget amount.
Though Albrecht’s proposal shows $415,439 cash on hand to begin FY 2013 and a request for an additional $500,000 to be put into reserves, the requested amount could decrease by the next budget meeting.
“The problem is, once a budget proposal is published, you can’t increase it,” said Albrecht. “If you change it, you can only go down. So we put in a request for $500,000; do we really need 500,000? Maybe not, but that’s for the board to decide. It’s up to them to make a determination to exactly where they want their cash reserves.”
The JECSA policy board hopes to finalize the budget by its Dec. 16 meeting, and send it to Johnson County’s Emergency Management commission by Jan. 2 for inclusion in its 2013 budget. As per Iowa code, the commission is authorized to request and secure funds for emergency management.
Once the JECSA policy board approves a budget, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to determine the best way to levy taxes in order to implement JECC’s funding with the least impact to taxpayers, said Johnson County Emergency Management Coordinator Dave Wilson.
Chairperson Harney said after the meeting there is no indication whether an increase in the property tax levy rate would be required to fund the JECC’s 2013 budget.
“This was the first time we had an opportunity to talk about any adjustments,” Harney said.