Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Commissioners take on next year’s budget

Lean times mean county will likely delay some capital expenses

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County leaders are looking for creative ways to reduce expenditures and maximize the impact of every last dollar that arrives in county coffers.

On Monday, the three-member Blaine County Commission waded into the county's official budgeting process for the upcoming 2010 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. County commissioners will hold additional budget hearings today, Wednesday, July 22, at 10:30 a.m., and on Thursday, July 23, at 10 a.m. The budget hearings are open to the public and will be held in the upstairs meeting room at the Old Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

This year, the commissioners will be looking for ways to make an already tight county budget even more efficient, County Commissioner Larry Schoen said Tuesday.

"There's not a lot of fat in the organization," he said.

Schoen said the county may even have to dip into its reserves to help sustain operations in 2010 while incoming revenue remains low. At the same time, he said, county leaders are looking for long-term measures to fix those shortfalls.

Like they do every year, county leaders are considering whether to increase property taxes to help bring in more revenue. Idaho law allows counties and municipalities to increase property taxes by up to 3 percent each year. Last year, the county went into the budgeting process for the current fiscal year with the goal of not having to take that increase.

However, in the end, the commissioners decided they had to increase property taxes to help pay expenses. Schoen said that will probably happen again this year.

"It's looking increasingly likely that we're going to have to take all or part of it," he said.

Schoen said that even if the county were to take the full 3 percent allowed by the state, that would only amount to an additional $225,000. Property taxes make up about a third of annual county revenue. The remainder includes state revenue sharing from income and sales taxes, federal PILT (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) payments, liquor sales, state gas taxes and fees from building permits and land-use applications.

Last summer, the commissioners approved a $22.7 million budget for the 2009 fiscal year. Out of that, just under $8 million came from property taxes.

For the 2010 fiscal year, the commissioners are again basing their discussions on that $22.7 million figure. But out of that amount, the county will have to pay for the estimated $1.5 million it will take to pay for the Blaine County Sheriff's Office's management of the Ketchum Police Department. That will ultimately be paid by the city of Ketchum.

The commissioners have said another likely result of the lean revenue times will be a wage freeze for all county employees during the 2010 fiscal year. They're also instructing department heads to limit capital expenses to the extent they can.

At the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, the limits on capital expenses in 2010 will mean no new patrol vehicles. Instead, Schoen said, leases on existing vehicles will be extended.

One benefit of this delay is the possibility that the county could begin to purchase more fuel-efficient patrol cars, a stated goal of the county.

By the first week of August, the commissioners must vote on the details of a tentative, "not-to-exceed" county budget. While the commission cannot increase those tentative budget figures once they've been set, they can either decrease the budget amount later in September or shift funds around, or "laterally," to cover other budget needs that may arise.

Jason Kauffman:

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