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Ehlmann recommends a fiscally conservative budget for 2016

A “fiscally conservative budget” for 2016 that includes the consolidation of emergency communications funds, money to renovate the county jail, and county employee pay increases has been recommended by St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann.

Ehlmann submitted his recommendations on Nov. 3 to the County Council, which is expected to adopt a budget by Jan. 1, the start of the county’s new fiscal year.

The budget recommendations include the consolidation of funds now designated for radio communications, emergency dispatching and police dispatching into a new emergency communications fund. A new county Department of Emergency Communications will be established as of Jan. 1. Centralizing the operations into one department comes as plans continue for the construction of a new multi-million dollar emergency communications and operations center.

In September, the council discussed building a $33 million, 41,000-square foot center on 10 acres behind the county police department’s headquarters off T.R. Hughes Drive in O’Fallon. The center would be funded largely from the capital projects fund, revenue derived from a sales tax for capital improvement that was renewed by county voters in 2009. If given the go-ahead, design work could begin in 2016 and construction in 2017, with the project taking about two years to complete.

Ehlmann also recommends spending $2.05 million from the capital projects fund for renovations to the county Justice Center in St. Charles as well as $500,000 for building a police department storage facility; $273,000 for completing additional space at the county’s pet adoption center; and $350,000 for new air conditioning at the county’s historic County Executive Building in St. Charles, also known as the old courthouse.

Ehlmann recommends saving $8 million from that fund for the start of the emergency operations center.

The budget also includes modest raises for most the county’s more than 1,000 employees and substantial raises for some. Ehlmann is recommending a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for all pay grades and a 1 percent “merit” increase for all eligible county employees that would start on Jan. 1.

Over that last several years, the county has tried to bring up salaries of employees, particularly sheriff’s deputies who have been shifted over to the county’s police department. This year, the county hired Evergreen Systems LLC to conduct a $65,000 compensation study for the county’s human resources department. Ehlmann is recommending that the county implement Evergreen’s recommendations for average pay raises of 10.2 percent, 6.3 percent and 4.4 percent for lower-paid employees in three pay “bands” under the county’s pay system.

Belinda Little, the county’s director of human resources, said in an interview that the proposed raises are designed to help lower-paid employees to catch up to comparable rates of pay in similar jobs. Pay raises in recent years have concentrated on higher-level jobs.

Ehlmann noted in his budget message that in 2010 and 2011 the county wasn’t able to raise pay for county employees because of declines in sales tax revenue.

“This year, with revenues increasing, we are attempting to make up for some of that lost ground,” the message states.

If the county implements the 2015 study recommendations, the average yearly pay increase over the last nine years will be 3.5 percent.

Sales tax collections in the 2015 fiscal year are ahead of the budgeted 2 percent increase as of September and may exceed 2014 totals by 2.5 percent by year end, county officials say. Sales tax revenue is the largest source of funding for the county’s general fund, which includes most county departments.

“For 2016, we believe it is reasonable to expect 2.25 percent sales tax collections over the amount to be collected in 2015,” Ehlmann’s message states.

Building permit fees are expected to be about $900,000 in 2016, the same as budgeted this year. Recorder’s fees in 2015 are estimated to be $235,000 more than anticipated and the county is projecting revenue from recorder’s fees to reach $1,925,000 in 2016, a slight increase over this year.

The budget recommendation notes that the county’s assessed valuation for real estate was up 5.8 percent over 2014, demonstrating a “slowly improving real estate market.”

While the economy is expected to improve gradually, uncertainty about any budget improvements make budget assumptions difficult, Ehlmann’s message states. He said it was best to recommend a “fiscally conservative budget reflecting $66.4 million in revenues and $77.7 million in general fund expenditures for the general fund.

Despite increasing sales tax revenue the last few years, the lack of similar growth in assessed valuation and the effect of the Hancock Amendment that requires tax rate cuts, is resulting in a potential shortfall in the county’s road and bridge fund. The budget includes a transfer of $699,000 from the capital projects fund to the road and bridge fund. The projected overall budget fund balance in 2016 could be $6.64 million.

Other proposed expenditures recommended for separate county funds in the budget include $24 million to the road and bridge, $23 million to the parks and recreation, $48.3 million to the transportation, and $24.7 million to the capital projects.

Ehlmann’s budget recommendations include $13 million from the parks and recreation fund for continued development of county parks including a park a Pitman and Kisker roads and the renovation of the historic Hays House. As in past budgets, there is $3 million available for purchasing park land. If no land is bought, the funds will be used to open additional parks.

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