LARNED — Following a teleconference scant on answers with County Clerk/Election Officer Ruth Searight over budgetary and election issues, Pawnee County Commissioners took no action to suspend or reduce the clerk’s salary at Monday’s regular meeting.
During a meeting on Oct. 5, the board voted to suspend the clerk’s salary unless she appeared before commissioners during their meeting Oct. 12. Searight was not present at that meeting but notified the board of her absence through a letter. The board then tabled the action item until Monday, at which time Searight and commissioners met via teleconference to discuss items of concern.
Commissioner Bob Rein Jr. opened the teleconference expressing his concern over the lack of up-to-date financial statements from the clerk’s office and asked Searight if she had prepared answers to questions issued by the board to Searight in a Sept. 24 letter.
Searight affirmed that she had answers to those questions and sent copies of the budgets to the board.
“So these statements are current? Have all the daily transactions been inputted into the ledger and are these numbers clear?” asked Rein.
“Yes,” Searight replied. “They are the dailies through August.”
Rein noted the forms the board had received were over six weeks old and continued to press Searight for answers regarding a lack of updated budget statements for the county overall.
“What about our current cash flow statements for the rest of the county?” he asked.
“What I would like to talk about first are the clerk and elections budgets,” Searight told Rein. “As you know, every county is over budget on elections.”
“Can you provide documentation for that?” Rein asked.
“I can let the Secretary of State let you know because that is what he informed me,” replied Searight. She added that there are also several expenditures that needed to be covered to insure voter safety in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her explanation of her frequent absences from the clerk’s office, Searight told commissioners she has a condition that her doctor said would prevent her from being around groups of people. “However, I still come into the office when I need to be there,” she said.
County Attorney Douglas McNett then asked Searight when she will authorize county janitorial staff to install ballot boxes sent by the Secretary of State to allow voters to drop off their absentee ballots.
“We can discuss that at another time,” replied Searight.
“Why do we need to discuss it at another time?” asked Rein.
The clerk said there are some security issues with the boxes that need to be addressed before installation. “Are those being addressed?” Rein asked. “I know custodial staff have prepped a concrete pad along with anchors to secure those boxes down.”
“That was never discussed with me,” answered Searight.
“Again, when are we supposed to discuss these things?” asked Rein.
“I am available almost all day, everyday,” she said.
Turning to next month’s election, Searight said the county is prepared to facilitate the event.
“We are ready to have a very good election,” she said.
About the budget
“We are also preparing to get our tax statements sent out and are on schedule to have that done,” Searight said.
Returning to the matter of the clerk’s budget, Searight informed the board of a voided check that has not yet been placed in the general ledger. She said the clerk’s office is set to receive an $8,792 credit.
“Not including payroll that we are working on, we have $49,631 left in the budget,” she said.
Searight noted there are five more payrolls remaining for office staff with $21,342.50 available until the end of the year. Concerning the elections budget, Searight informed the board that the current budget is $38,649 in the red, minus a scheduled $16,071 credit involving two reimbursements from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Searight said contingent on the timing of those credits, the elections budget will finish the year at nearly zero. “It might be a little over or a little under depending on those reimbursements,” she said.
“I just want to be clear,” said Rein. “You believe you will be in line if you figure the clerk’s and elections budgets together?”
“I think we will be just about a wash on it,” replied Searight. “Again, we might be just a little under or over between the two. But it will look better than what it is now,” she said.
“What if it isn’t?” asked Rein.
Searight informed the board that in the past, if a department was going over budget, then money would be pulled out of another account.
“That is our concern,” said Rein. “We realize there are COVID expenditures but we also asked for any reimbursable expenditures for COVID-related issues when we received the SPARKS funding.”
He said at around the time of the August primary is when they started asking budgetary questions. He told Searight that what the commission is really asking of the clerk is open communication.
“You know we have a county to administer,” he said. “I’m still unclear if these financial statements we have received this morning are current. Are they relatively current or do they go back to August?
What about the rest of the county? Is the clerk not responsible for performing financial functions for the county?”
Rein said he is very concerned about the problem of continuing to write checks for any budget without any current financial data.
“Would you agree that puts a lot of us in a very bad situation?” asked Rein.
“Sometimes people get behind,” replied Searight. “And sometimes there is a very good reason for that.”
The tax roll
She said it was common for the county treasurer to fall behind in October in issuing the tax roll.
“We do the tax roll and the treasurer sends out the statements,” Searight said adding that her office is currently on top of the tax roll. “We are just about ready to solidify the value,” she said.
Searight added that there are about three or four steps left in the process and that the county cannot set the mill levy until those procedures are completed.
“We are all under the gun,” Searight said. “The commissioners and our office and nearly everyone in the county are trying to make due with what we have.”
She also reiterated that the tax roll will be ready barring any holdups.
“How do you propose we move forward if we do not have the absolute knowledge that our financial reports are current and accurate?” asked Rein. “It’s difficult to work off of, as far as we know, information that is only closed through Aug. 31.”
Searight said that the county could have an update through September after solving what she called a balancing glitch.
“We will pretty much be in line with what our budgets should be and are working on a plan to get everything else up to date. We feel like the cash and money are there,” Searight said.
Rein said that the board cannot move forward based on a “feeling that the money is there.”
“So we continue to write checks without updated statements. Is that your recommendation?” he asked Searight.
She said that is something the board will need to work out with an accountant.
“Then we have to pay them additional money,” said Rein.
McNett then referred back to the list of questions submitted to Searight on Sept. 24, specifically if the clerk’s office is capable of completing its required duties with its current staffing level.
“I believe the answer to that is ‘no’,” Searight said. “I am short of help.”
Rein asked Searight if she advertised for help. She said the commissioners did not want her to hire additional support staff.
“We did not say that,” said Rein. “Because we have concerns about our financial situation county-wide, what we said was do not hire without prior consent of the board.” Rein added that overtime was not to be granted without board consent. “You obviously ignored that,” Rein told Searight. “Why didn’t you come to us by letter or email or phone call on Monday when we’re meeting and simply make a request to hire some additional help? Then we could address why you are understaffed in the first place.”
“I think we’ve come to an end of the meeting of the minds on this issue,” Searight said. She repeated her previous statement that her office is “under the gun” but reiterated that she will be able to facilitate the November general election.
“I am going to continue to serve the people of Pawnee County,” Searight said. “I have never been put in this position before and I think you (the board) should be rethinking what you’re doing.”
“Once again you have leveled more allegations against this board,” Rein said before the conversation ended. “You continue to make vague statements on issues but you refuse to elaborate. I’ll leave it at that.”