FOREST CITY | The Winnebago County Board of Supervisors will have some tough decisions to make in the coming months, and they’ll likely impact taxpayers.

Two weeks after Ruth Merchant, Winnebago County Public Health administrator, and Julie Sorenson, Public Health financial manager, spoke with the county board about a funding shortfall in their department, the supervisors are realizing it may be part of a county-wide issue.

“I’ll just say this for the record, if we’re in the shape we’re in, it’s time to clean house in 2018 and 2020, and I’m including myself in 2020,” said Supervisor Mike Stensrud.

In a discussion addressing the public health department’s financial woes Oct. 24, County Auditor Karla Weiss notified the supervisors the county’s general basic fund would be depleted by the end of the year, which is why it’s unable to transfer more money to public health than it budgeted.

“Every dollar that we have this year is spoken for,” she said.

Earlier this month, Weiss told supervisors the county’s fund balance was about $628,000 — the lowest it’s been since the 2010-2011 fiscal year when the year ended with about $460,000, according to Winnebago County financial reports dating back to 2008 on the Iowa Department of Management’s online database.

“How does it happen?” said a woman in the audience at the supervisors’ meeting. “Where did it go?”

Weiss explained to the supervisors, and those in attendance, part of the problem was she "overestimated" the starting fund balance for (the 2017-2018 fiscal year) because she used the year-end fund balance from 2015-2016, which was about $2.1 million, to prepare the 2017-2018 budget. By doing so, she didn’t account for the “large amount of budget amendments” approved by the county board during the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

She said the county also spent more on building its new public safety center and renovating its courthouse than it ever thought it would.

After hearing Weiss’ explanation, Stensrud called for a “full-blown audit” to be conducted on Winnebago County. The state auditor's office handles those requests. 

“Guys in my district have been asking for me to do this for years and I’ve put them off, but I think it’s time that we did it,” he said.

Because the item wasn’t on the county board’s agenda, County Attorney Adam Sauer suggested the supervisors postpone discussion on the audit until an Oct. 31 meeting, forcing them to address the Public Health department’s funding shortfall.

“I want to find out where every dime has gone to,” Stensrud said. “Until that happens, I don’t know how we can in good conscience make a decision on this.”

Public health’s shortfall is the result of the county board reducing the department’s $243,389 funding request to $50,000 — a $193,000 reduction — during the budgeting process for the 2017-2018 fiscal year without notifying them.

Merchant and Sorenson spoke with the supervisors on Tuesday, Oct. 10, about the item when the department’s July request to transfer funds from the county’s general fund to public health wasn’t answered after the fall tax collection.

At that meeting, Merchant said public health, which is governed by the Board of Health, requested the transfer to “complete jobs it needs to do” at a time when the cost of care is increasing and Medicaid, Medicare and state revenues are declining.

The department, which provides public health and home-care services throughout the county, currently has a fund balance of $58,184 — excluding the $50,000 transfer request — with nine months remaining in the fiscal year.

“Right now, you’re running on a very tight budget,” said Supervisor Terry Durby, who asked to have the public health department’s financial situation on the Oct. 24 agenda in hopes of resolving the issue.

Because of the reduction, the department is trying to determine how — and if — it will meet payroll and provide care to its 117 clients as well as conducting 430 skilled-nursing visits per month, 760 home-care visits per month and other services — many of which are mandated by state and federal laws.

“I’m going to try to find the money,” Stensrud said, adding the department will have to find ways to “pare back” services where it can.

Merchant said the Board of Health discussed at its recent meeting about cutting staff’s overtime expenditures and homemakers’ services for county residents not receiving medical care as well as examining its Healthy Families program, which provides services to families and children from the prenatal to the preschool years.

“I guess to solve what we’re here for today, I’d hope we could find the money to get through this fiscal year,” Stensrud said. “I’m asking you guys to do some house cleaning.”

“Other departments, too, not just public health,” said Deb Jensen, a longtime public health nurse who served in Winnebago and Hancock counties before retiring three years ago. “Every department has to take responsibility for this.”

Stensrud said the discussion about public health and other county departments will have to be had during the budgeting process in January.

When asked what residents can do to help the county address its financial issue and maintain public health services, Supervisor Bill Jensvold said, “Convince everybody that they’re going to have to be happy paying more taxes ... It’s about the only solution there is right now.”

Jensen said she couldn’t imagine why people wouldn’t be OK with it, especially for the services they receive. She, and others, as an informal task force, plan on visiting community groups throughout the county in the coming months to educate residents about the public health department and its importance in serving the entire county.

“There isn’t anyone in this room that doesn’t want to resolve this problem,” Jensvold said. “We never intended to get here. We have to find out how we got here.”

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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