County committee discusses large shortfall in Highway Department budget

By Keri Solis
There was much discussion at the Marquette County Executive & Finance Committee meeting on Monday in regard to the Highway Department being $964,431 over their budget of $2,511,541 for 2012.

The first hint of the department being over budget appeared in October with a deficit of $48,178.  By November it was up to $202,768, before ending the year at $964,431 over. As result, the Highway Department’s $593,792 reserve fund, which is meant to be used towards unexpected items such as salt and sand during a winter with above normal snowfall, needed to be applied to the shortfall. In addition, $370,639 is being requested to be transferred from the county general fund to close the gap.

According to County Highway Commissioner Brendon Rhinehart, part of the challenges his department faced in 2012 was a lack of staff to keep up with the paperwork. Previously, there had been an office manager and an accounting tech assisting the department. Two years ago, the office manager position was cut and a part-time person replaced the full-time person.  Rhinehart felt that bringing the half-time position up to full time would allow for the paperwork to be kept up with in a timely manner. Approval was given by the committee to bring the position back up to full time, bringing office staff up from 1.5 people to 2 people.

Rhinehart also stated the county worked ahead of schedule last year on road paving in order to receive money from a state program that ended last year, but did not attribute a specific dollar amount as to how the extra paving may have affected the budget.

One area that had been under budget until the audit was completed was in sand and gravel. After the audit, there was a negative adjustment to three areas: Salt ($62,444), salt and sand ($70,000), and gravel ($47,198). According to Rhinehart, the inventory comes in weighed, but they don’t have a scale to weigh exactly what is going out. As a result, he said, a little extra on each truck can add up and go unaccounted for.

Highway Committee members were questioned on why this wasn’t caught earlier. They stated that they do not receive full, itemized budget reports every month, and there did not appear to be a problem until the end of the year.

Committee Chairperson Shirley Floeter asked committee members if they wanted to move into closed session to discuss personnel’s involvement in the budget overrun, an option that was included in the meeting agenda. However, no motion was made to do that at this meeting.

According to state statue 83.01 County Highways, “The county highway commissioner shall make an annual report to the department and to the county board at its annual meeting containing an itemized statement of all expenditures made from the county road and bridge fund during the year ending November 1.

Under 81.013 it also states that the county highway committee shall “meet from time to time at the county seat to audit all payrolls and material claims and vouchers resulting from the construction of highways and perform other duties imposed by law or by the county board.”

The county will continue to look into the matter to fully understand how the budget became so overdrawn and to be sure that county committees are asking the right questions in regards to budgets for their respective departments.