Wednesday, April 22, 2009

County Commissioners begin 2010 budget talks

Informal discussion centers on property taxes and service cuts

Express Staff Writer

In anticipation of declining revenues, Blaine County has started budget discussions for the 2010 fiscal year. Commissioners said the talks are at least two months earlier than normal.

"We're trying to do more budgetary planning farther into the future," Commissioner Larry Schoen said. "It's just a better process for county organization."

Numbers calculated by the county clerk's office show an initial budget deficit of about $1.7 million. However, a leftover reserve of $750,000 from the 2009 budget and about $225,000 in revenue from a possible 3 percent increase in property taxes leave a projected total deficit of about $750,000.

The County Commissioners expressed an interest in cutting the deficit in half by 2010 and completely by 2011. At the heart of the matter is how best to decrease the deficit while maintaining adequate county operations.

In past public meetings, both Schoen and Commissioner Tom Bowman have opposed an increase in property taxes. Each year the county has the option to raise property taxes by as much as 3 percent. Last year, Schoen and Bowman spoke out against tax increases, but ultimately voted in favor of them to make up for budget shortfalls.

While Bowman said he has no stomach for taxes this year, Schoen said he could be persuaded to change his mind.

"My policy goal in public has been to not increase property taxes, but the other component is to maintain county service," Schoen said.

Schoen said his goal is to find more revenue without cutting too many services.

"If possible, to balance the two with a small increase in property tax revenue, I'd consider it, but I'd really have to look at it," he said. "Like I've said before, this county organization is not fat. We don't have a lot of programs or staffing. There are places we can cut but not a lot."

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she supports a property tax increase.

"I understand there is a recession," she said. "But I'm more interested in finding a balance between funds and maintaining our county services."

McCleary also said people expect an annual increase in property taxes and would be more likely to accept that than a decline in services.

The commissioners ended the discussion with a consensus to pinpoint a deficit number that they can all live with before they decide how best to reach that number.

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