The future of a Butler-Seward County agreement is uncertain after Seward County commissioners discussed potential litigation in an emergency executive session and did not accept two grants to fund the agreement at its meeting on July 23.
Under an interlocal agreement between the two counties, Butler County gives grant funding and pays $14,500 per year to Seward County for Seward County to manage diversion and truancy programs for both counties.
According to county attorney Wendy Elston, truancy is a status offense related to school attendance and diversion is an alternative repercussion for criminal offenses than going through the court system.
At the meeting, the Seward County commissioners voted on whether or not to accept four grants from the Crime Commission to fund those two programs via the interlocal agreement.
The commissioners decided to take no action on two grants worth around $20,000 total but accepted two others worth around $90,000 total.
The board was unwilling to take action on the first two because it did not want accepting the grants to tie their hands in negotiations surrounding the future of the interlocal agreement. The board was unsure what effect accepting the grants might have on litigation because Elston was unable to provide legal counsel during debate due to a conflict of interest in pending litigation discussed in an emergency executive session.
“The pending litigation has a bigger scope than just this particular interlocal,” she said. “It involves somebody in my office, and so I have to conflict out of it, so I don’t believe it would be appropriate for me to comment on it at this time.”
Still, Elston responded to commissioners’ claims that they could not accept the grant money because of pending litigation.
“These aren’t tied into possible litigation,” she told commissioners.
Elston asked repeatedly if the board had received outside legal counsel to determine if accepting the grants would interfere with its pending litigation.
“You are basically saying that you can’t vote on it because of pending litigation, but yet you haven’t sought legal counsel to advise you whether or not you can proceed on this,” she said.
Commissioner Becky Paulsen said the board would be seeking outside counsel after the meeting.
“You’re saying that the board needs legal counsel before we say no, but you’re not representing the county at this time,” she said. “So, we made a decision to say no to action at this time until we get legal representation.”
However, Casey Tiemann, the coordinator of Seward County’s pretrial diversion drug program, which is overseen by the county attorney’s office, and the person who wrote the four grant applications, said the Crime Commission needed an answer that day. She asked the commissioners why they could not proceed.
“I’m confused why you would not approve a grant that we’ve been awarded several years in a row,” she said.
Commissioner Ken Schmieding responded.
“It’s information that the board has received due to possible litigation with the intermix of issues that we need outside counsel for advice,” he said. “In the short term that you’ve brought this to the exact day that this supposedly expires, you gave us no option to get legal advice.”
The items had appeared on the agenda the week before, but Tiemann was unable to attend.
Elston continued to insist that commissioners should accept the grant money.
“Just because you accept the money doesn’t mean that you can’t later terminate the Butler County-Seward County truancy agreement,” she said.
After having decided to take no action on the first two grants, the commissioners voted down motions to not proceed on the third grant and accepted the final two grants.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners John Culver said the board did not want to take action on the first two grants because they were related to both the diversion program and the interlocal agreement with Butler County, both of which he said are at play in the pending litigation.
“The first two were directly associated with diversion, and the second two really didn’t have anything to do with diversion, and they were local,” he said. “We just put it up for no vote until we get legal advice, and then she (Elston) argued, well, you can’t, so what she’s trying to do is force our hand to do something without legal advice and yet tell us we need legal advice.”
Tiemann said the commissioners’ actions were “confusing.”
“They had approved these grant applications on three prior occasions for me to move forward with the funds, so I’m just a little concerned on what has transpired recently that they can’t move forward just to approve the funds because I literally have a piece of paper to turn in to officially start receiving the funds,” she said.
Elston said it was a surprise.
“They’ve been before the board three times, so we’ve presented the grant application,” she said. “They approved the grant application, which showed that it was intertwined.”
While the diversion and truancy programs are separate, both are part of the interlocal agreement, funded by the grants and managed by the same people in the county attorney’s office.
“It’s the same skills, same programing that you can use,” Elston said.
According to Tiemann, 17 people in Butler County and 22 in Seward County participated in the truancy program last year.
Elston said those numbers reflect how many people actually participate in the programming and complete the curriculum, but the program monitors more individuals who do not officially participate in the program.
“We call it an attendance support program because we’re actually supporting parents to get the kids to school,” she said.
Seward Public Schools superintendent Dr. Josh Fields spoke in favor of the truancy program run by the county attorney’s office.
“This is a big piece that does help the school systems out in Seward County,” he said. “It’s a proactive approach to families that are really struggling with getting their kids to school.”
Fields said having the county attorney’s office as a partner in managing truancy programs alleviates strain on the school system and allows it to devote resources elsewhere.
“This partner really helps defer some of those costs from the district,” he said.
Some commissioners were not convinced that the partnership with Butler County is worth it, including Paulsen.
“I believe that we need to start taking care of Seward County and let others in other counties do their own jobs,” she said.
Culver expressed a similar sentiment.
“The big thing with interlocals, though, is that we’re doing services for other counties where we’re providing employees for other counties at the cost of taxpayers,” he said. “Sometimes it’s paid for by grants, but a lot of it the taxpayers have to compensate for different things that the grant’s not being used for and can’t be used for.”
The county attorney’s office disagreed.
“I kind of wanted to challenge them to let them know that we’re not only talking about Seward,” Tiemann said. “What’s happening in Butler definitely affects what’s happening in Seward.”
Tiemann said the county is currently working with four juveniles on diversion who live in Seward County but committed law violations in Butler County. She said the interlocal agreement means people in those types of situations—who live in one county but violate the law in the other—can complete the diversion curriculum where they live and not have to travel to the other county.
Elston said pulling in program participants from both counties allows diversion classes to fill up faster, meaning that people can complete the program faster than they otherwise might be able to.
“You need certain people,” she said. “You can’t have a class of three.”
Elston also said the only costs incurred by Seward County taxpayers through the programs are for employee benefits like health insurance but that fees generated from participants in the programs usually cover those costs.
“If you tracked the money, it would basically be somewhat of a wash,” she said. “I think we actually bring in more money than that costs.”
Elston said the loss of around $20,000 in grant money could result in the elimination of programs or staff or an increased cost to taxpayers, in addition to longer times people might have to participate in diversion programs.
While the board did not officially terminate the interlocal agreement, Elston said doing so might put all of the grant money in jeopardy.
“The grant was basically awarded because of the collaboration between the two counties,” she said.
This was the latest flare-up in a contentious relationship between commissioners and the county attorney that has devolved over the past few months.
“Just within the last six months, you will see that the commissioners are basically attempting to reduce anything that the county attorney is attempting to bring revenue in for the county,” Elston said after the meeting.
Culver said commissioners are trying to make sure the county attorney’s office is operating in line with counties of a similar size.
“We look at her staff compared to comparable counties or even larger counties. She has more people compared to those, and all we’re trying to do is make it more equitable to our county that we’re not paying for 16 people when York’s got three or Saline’s got two or three,” he said. “We just believe it’s overstaffed, and we’re just trying to get it back down to budget. We can’t afford to pay for that kind of a huge staff.”
According to County Clerk Sherry Schweitzer, the county attorney’s budget request is around $100,000 more than it was two years ago.
Culver said the board wants to stop that number from increasing.
“It’s grown way out of control over the previous boards, and this board’s decided to take it on,” he said. “It’s gotta be done.”