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County looks at ways to cut costs

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GREENFIELD — A run-down swivel chair or a troublesome copy machine might have to wait a year or two to be replaced as county officials try to curb costs of capital expenses ranging from office furniture to technology.

The Hancock County Commissioners began the tedious task last week of asking nearly every department head in the county what items they had planned to replace this year and what they can live without.

That two-hour process is just the beginning: there are $1.4 million in wish-list expenses among 17 departments, and commissioners are trying to chop the figure down to $800,000. With more than $620,000 worth of cuts to be made, officials hope the work will be worth it, saying more oversight on spending could lead to savings in the long run.

At issue is a large fund in county government, used for equipment and big-ticket items, called the cumulative capital development fund. Previously, each department had its own budget lines to dip into the CCD fund, but there wasn’t a lot of central oversight. Copiers and furniture would be purchased without looking to what other departments were doing or whether savings could be realized by waiting a year or two.

The county’s fiscal branch, the Hancock County Council, decided last fall to centralize all CCD costs out of the executive branch: the board of commissioners.

“What we thought would be a better idea, since the commissioners oversee capital improvements for the whole county, they (should) make those decisions,” said Councilman John Jessup. “They can say, ‘No, we don’t really think you need that furniture’ or ‘That’s $2,000 in furniture. Why don’t you get by with $600 in furniture?’”

Jessup suggested the $800,000 figure as a starting point to make cuts. The idea came when the council was debating the idea of a $2 million bond for new dump trucks and office technology. The bond was turned down, and several officials have been advocating for better planning in spending.

Jessup says if the CCD fund is watched more closely, the county will be better able to have money on hand the next time a large expense occurs. Jessup said there will be more than $1 million in tax revenue coming into the CCD fund this year, but if only $800,000 is spent, that could mean money will build up annually.

“The idea would be to get that fund to where it’s over $2 million,” he said. “Then whenever it comes up time to do a general obligation bond, we can say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s what the money is there for. Why bond when we have the money?’”

Council president Bill Bolander said the new concept makes the commissioners a “central clearinghouse” for departments from the courts to the recorder.

Commissioner Brad Armstrong said the change is a long time coming. He said when each department had its own oversight on buying equipment and furniture, “stuff would just happen, like people would buy new furniture, and nobody knew why it was bought. Then you’d have nice furniture taken to auction.”

More advance planning could mean items can be purchased in bulk for a cost savings. Last week, commissioners agreed to pay for items that the county is contractually bound to cover. Many departments had contracts with vendors to lease copy machines, for example, but Armstrong said eventually, the county could get better deals if copy machines, computers or furniture are purchased in bulk.

The highway department and the sheriff’s department, for example, are so far apart from each other that department heads don’t communicate on what new items they are purchasing, Armstrong said.

Commissioners President Derek Towle said last week’s meeting was the beginning of a lengthy process.

“In speaking with the different department heads, we asked them what exactly do they need, and we brought them all together so we could explain the severity of the situation,” Towle said. “Some put (items) in for more of a ‘just in case’ situation…. We got a basic idea of what’s being asked for, what’s not being asked for, what things we can get by without.”

In the coming weeks, Towle said commissioners will narrow down the wish-list expenses even more. He said the county will slowly be transitioning to where it will look to buy items for several departments in bulk to save money.

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