Besides pressing to change the Reno County Health Department’s COVID-19 recommendations, Reno County Commissioner Daniel Friesen on Tuesday suggested changes for a few other county departments, starting with an increase in the cost of tag renewals.
Friesen, whose company provides the county’s phone and internet service, has expressed several times previously that he believes the county should embrace more technology.
“It seems like there’s a lot of in-person stuff going on in renewals,” he said. “Can’t more of it be done online?”
“We encourage people to use it (online), as well as the dropbox,” said Tag Supervisor Elizabeth Belliveau, from the Reno County Treasurer’s office.
But the state controls the system, and it charges higher fees for online processing than it costs to do in person, she said.
Also, she noted, title work has to be done in person, and on commercial tags, the law requires a signature to be verified in person.
“I feel like anything your office can do to increase the virtual work, it should,” Friesen said. “Is it possible to get a list of things the state requires you do in the office? I’d like to see that list… I have the opportunity to walk by your office every time we come in here and the people look miserable.”
Commissioner Ron Sellers said he had the same concerns as Friesen but noted, despite the fact tag renewals can be done by mail or online, “a substantial part of the population chose not to.”
Processing by mail or using the dropbox outside the county annex are the cheapest options for patrons since the office charges a $1.50 fee for in-person processing, Belliveau explained. She thought people renew tags in person out of habit.
In contrast, the extra cost for renewing online is $2 per vehicle fee, plus a processing fee based on the payment method. If the payer uses an ACH withdrawal directly from a bank account, that adds a $1 flat fee. However, if using a credit or debit card to pay, the fee is 2.5% of the total renewal amount due or $2.50 for every $100.
“At the end of the day, county taxpayers are paying for services people can do online, and we can reduce county expenses if people would just use the convenience of online,” Friesen said. “I don’t think a $1.50 fee is an incentive for anyone to use the online system. Increase our costs. Can you increase the fee? Is that a county thing?”
Property taxes don’t fund county tag office operation, Belliveau said. The fees that are charged for motor vehicle processes do.
“The users are paying for it,” she said.
When Friesen again asked if the fee for in-person renewal could be increased, he was advised it was the treasurer’s decision. If choosing to do so, Belliveau said, it would have to be done in September.
The treasurer, like county commissioners, is elected.
Other issues Friesen brought up in wide-ranging comments:
Emergency Management working conditions
Friesen then asked why an issue with the heating and air in the Emergency Management Office had not been resolved.
“It’s been over a year,” Friesen said, and emergency responders shouldn’t have to work in overheated or cold conditions.
“We’re lucky they’re tolerant of the situation,” he said. “A lot of employees would have just quit by now.”
County Administrator Randy Partington said they went through last winter before they even learned of the problem, and then arbitration with the city over the cost of work delayed it, but now they have a solution, and it should be in place by the end of the year.
Friesen then made a motion “requiring that the county administrator resolve this by the end of the year,” but Partington said a motion wasn’t necessary, and no one seconded it.
Both Sellers and Commission Chair Ron Hirst agreed that the issue needed to be resolved “as soon as possible.”
More:Statue honoring longtime downtown proponent installed
Eliminate open positions?
Friesen then noted there are currently 17 positions open at the county, from the health department to public works, and several were on the list a long time.
“Maybe we don’t need them,” he said. “A big part of the use of tax revenue is if we can save and give it back and reduce taxes, I’d prefer that.”
Partington said in the “current climate,” it’s been hard to fill positions, and each department has different needs and issues.
“I promise next year to work on a priority-type budget, with vacancies considered in a usage situation,” Partington said.
Friesen questioned why county planning staff was allowed to recommend wind restrictions “contrary to the direction the county commission had given.”
“This commission directed staff to work with the planning commission on two things,” Friesen said. “To me, that was a directive by us. Staff went outside our directive on one issue. I’m trying to play it back and forth in my mind, if that was appropriate or not. My kneejerk reaction is that it is insubordination to go against our requirements.”
Sellers noted that the planning staff and public works director were “giving their professional recommendation, based on the conditional use permitting process.”
“They took the politics out of wind energy in their recommendation, and as professionals, is what they recommended,” he said.
“We give that latitude to the planning commission, not staff,” Friesen said. “It seemed on the edge to me.”
Hirst noted both he and the planning commission chair were informed before the meeting what the recommendation would be.
More:Planning Commission OKs language banning commercial wind in zoned portions of Reno County
Lingering septic issues
Friesen said he is “constantly being pinged” on issues related to the county’s septic tank policy.
“Some of the things they said seem reasonable,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like we’re closing the loop on conversations on that.”
“If you want to change the environmental regulations, we can change them,” Partington said. “We can have a less strict system. It will free up time, but it will change how we do things. There is a process we have the environmental health officer follow. There may be one of two individuals who have issues with the system we use, but it’s only one or two people.”
A committee of health department staff and representatives of septic systems suppliers and installers met several times last year to try to work out issues.
“The things they’re saying don’t seem unreasonable,” Friesen said.
Partington said it was a staff issue and not the commission’s responsibility, and he’d try to work it out with staff.
Costs of crime and voting
Friesen suggested the county become involved in tracking and mapping cell phone dead spots around the county to inform providers.
He also commented on how much “taxpayer money is being spent on what I call the ecosphere of crime,” and he questioned why the county was paying for a polling place at the fairgrounds.
“From the district attorney to the sheriff to the jail, what I picked out in October is we spent $18,000 on coroner expenses and $25,000 on attorney fees to defend accused individuals. We spent $1,500 on airline tickets to ferry prisoners and $11,000 for one prisoner who was a patient at HRCM. There’s thousands in food. I just wanted to point that out. I don’t have a solution for it,” Friesen said.
He then asked if the county couldn’t find free polling places rather than renting space at the Kansas State Fairgrounds for elections.
Those are all city precincts that vote there, said County Clerk Donna Patton, and there are no other buildings large enough in the county to house the 35 precincts that vote there.
More:2021 Kansas State Fair revenues not impacted as much as attendance might indicate