Everyone with a wallet is familiar with fees. There are fees for extra baggage at the airport, fees for making copies at the library and fees for a bounced check.
Local governments charge fees, too. And like businesses, governments sometimes reassess how much in fees they need to charge.
St. Clair County recently approved a study to see whether its fees are high enough to cover the cost of its services. Under the $30,000 agreement, a Chicago-area financial consulting firm, Fiscal Choice Consulting, will analyze fees charged by the sheriff’s department, the recorder of deeds, the county clerk, and the Mapping, Platting and Zoning Department.
The results of the study will determine whether fees for customers of those departments will either increase or, less likely, decrease, County Administrator Debra Moore said.
If the study finds fees need to be increased, doing so could prevent the county from having to make up the funds through increased property taxes, District 21 County Board Member Frank Heiligenstein said.
County revenue has declined because of property taxes lost to tax increment financing, or TIF districts, Heiligenstein said, making an analysis of fees and the cost of services all the more important.
“If we didn’t have those fees, the tax rates in any county would be much higher,” Heiligenstein said. “It amounts to millions of dollars.”
Bruce Cowans, a consultant for Fiscal Choice Consulting, said it all comes down to calculating the minute costs of everyday activities, not just an overall budget.
The question is, what does it cost St. Clair County to offer each of these services? The fees tend to get ignored and essentially if you do that, your costs keep growing even if your process remains the same.
Bruce Cowans, Fiscal Choice Consulting
“The budget funds the sheriff’s department but in the sheriff’s department there are many activities that are covered by a fee. ... The question is, what does it cost St. Clair County to offer each of these services?” Cowans said. “The fees tend to get ignored and essentially if you do that, your costs keep growing even if your process remains the same.”
Over three months, the firm will dive deep into department budgets to find out what each process costs, taking into consideration who works on it, what do those employees cost, who else do they work with, how long does it take and non-salary expenses, Cowans said.
“Without this information, people tend to let these prices stay in place for a long time,” he said.
When counties fail to update their fees, they are “unintentionally using taxpayer dollars to pay for something that at least seems like it should be paid for by the fee,” Cowans said.
The sheriff’s department, for example, is one of those offices whose fees are out-of-date, said James Hendricks, sheriff’s administrative assistant. The department is responsible for serving all eviction notices in the county, among other types of legal notices. The department charges $50 for an eviction notice, $50 for summonses and $15 for certified mail services.
“I believe (the fees) don’t even come close to covering the costs,” Henricks said.
But the point of the study is not to generate profit for the county, the consultant added.
“In no case would (the county) be making money. Reimbursement is the goal, to find the break-even point. The study doesn’t obligate them to charge that amount,” Cowans said.
St. Clair County hired the same firm in a $12,000 agreement in 2015 to create a regulatory document that allowed the county to receive reimbursement from departments and funds with their own funding sources.
Madison County hired the firm in 2016 for $47,460 to study the cost of consolidating 16 dispatch centers into eight or less consolidated centers, as mandated by state law.