DARKE COUNTY — Balancing the checkbook on a middle-class paycheck can be difficult. Now imagine the task of trying to balance a multi-million dollar budget for an entire county government. This is the everyday challenge which faces Darke County Board of Commissioners Diane Delaplane, Mike Stegall and Mike Rhoades.
Appropriations for the county out of its General Fund total more than $20.3 million for 2016, approximately $2.16 million more than in 2015. Revenue to the county’s General Fund comes from property and sales taxes.
Commissioner Rhoades sat down with The Daily Advocate to discuss county budget matters and the difficulty in funding departments that perpetually assert a lack of money. While he states the county is in good shape financially, it still requires constant oversight and the board is responsible for funding many county agencies and is charged with the upkeep of county-owned properties.
“The commissioners have to take care of over 20 buildings throughout the county,” he said. “We have to repair roofs, windows — general building upkeep. We have to heat and/or cool these buildings. We have to take care of paying the electric, the natural gas, and water and sewer.”
Rhoades says the electric costs the county $97,000 per year. Natural gas runs $80,000 per year, and water and sewer, $13,000.
In addition are salaries for county employees, which Rhoades says exceed $7 million every year out of the county’s funds.
“There’s some salaries that outside funds pay for, like our Community Block Development Grant monies, some of our administration, some of the grants we receive,” he said. “The commissioners pay for most of the salaries to the tune of more than $7 million. The commissioners also pay the county’s share of health insurance. In all, the salaries are even more than $7 million.”
Rhoades noted another example of outside funds covering a county expense, wherein salaries, insurance and expenses for employees of the county’s engineer department are paid with gas tax money directly from the state, not by the county.
Further, the county must pay for the services of law enforcement and the courts, which takes a large chunk of the county’s budget, according to Rhoades.
“Not just here, but in every county, the sheriff’s office itself is over third of budget,” he said.
For 2016, the commissioners have appropriated nearly $6 million for the sheriff’s office alone. Rhoades, however, is not bemoaning such expenditures.
“My responsibility is that I need to help protect everybody in this county,” he said. “And part of my job is to make sure there is funding available to everybody for everything, and that’s a serious part of we have to do.”
A large, yet-to-be determined expense looms. The county expects to upgrade its communications systems soon, very likely adopting the MARCS radio system, in order to fall in line with nearby law enforcement and emergency agencies.
“Our [current] radio system is done. It is literally done,” Rhoades said. “All the fire departments, the EMS departments, and all the law enforcement agencies’ radio equipment is coming to its life’s end. The VHF radio frequency is no longer being used by any of our surrounding counties. The majority of them have or will be changing over to the state-run MARCS radio system.”
“I am on the communication committee along with numerous other individuals who deal with our radio system in the county,” he said. “We have done a very extensive investigation on what will be the right way to go for the protection of those departments and the well-being of the county as a whole. This issue has not been taken lightly.”
Rhoades says the board must also deal with debts the county acquired years before the current commissioners took office.
Using the county’s Wagner Avenue Government Complex as an example, he pointed out, “The Darke County Auditor was recently quoted in [a newspaper] an article where she stated she ‘doesn’t like having debt.’ I agree completely! Keep in mind this debt was already in place before the auditor and myself came into office. We commissioners are constantly working on filling the vacant spaces in the complex.”
Though he said the board is paying down the debt, he contends this is not a unique problem locally.
“Keep in mind there are several other retail buildings vacant here in Greenville,” he said. “It is a constant problem, not only for the commissioners, but others here in the community face every day.”
Rhoades admits that though the commissioners sometimes face criticism for expenditures, different conclusions are frequently drawn from the numbers shown on paper. However, he contends that he, Stegall and Delaplane run a tight ship when it comes to the taxpayers’ money.
“It is easy for people to look through a rose-colored glass window and tell us what they think we should do,” he said. “But they really do not understand what all is taking place. I guarantee that I am not taking any of these, or any other issues, lightly.”
The writer may be reached at 937-569-4314. Join the conversation and get updates on Facebook search Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.