Friday, January 29, 2010

County looks to tackle budget woes

Reserve spending raises concerns

Express Staff Writer

A review of the first quarter of the 2010 budget shows that Blaine County is in line with forecasts made at the beginning of the fiscal year, but that a difficult economic situation persists and will likely do so into fiscal 2011.

At a regular Blaine County Commission meeting Tuesday at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey, County Clerk JoLynn Drage said revenues for the first quarter, which ran from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, were about $1.2 million, exceeding the estimated $850,000.

However, there is still cause for concern because of a predicted expenditure for fiscal 2010 of just under $560,000 in reserves to maintain a balanced budget. That figure is well below the $1.18 million of reserve spending Drage included in the budget. In an interview, she said a significant portion of that is included as a contingency for emergencies.

Drage said it's not unusual to dip into reserves even during a healthy economy, especially when large capital projects are being undertaken, but that with lower revenues it would be important to keep an eye on that source of spending.

"It's not dire yet—we just need to be cautious not to spend reserves down too far," Drage said.

Drage said that overall, the county is projected to have abut $4 million in reserves left over at the end of the current fiscal year, about one-quarter of the general fund and in line with a recommendation from the Government Finance Officers Association.

"We knew going in [to the current budget year] that we would have this problem and that we would have to solve it for fiscal year 2011," Commissioner Tom Bowman said during the meeting.

To help create the 2011 budget, the commission agreed with County Administrator Derek Voss' recommendation that the county adopt an "outcome-based budgeting" process. Voss said such a process focuses on the priorities of county residents and allocates funding accordingly, as opposed to the traditional approach in which increases or cuts in spending are based on the previous year's budget.

Though no schedule was set, Commission Chair Larry Schoen said public workshops should be held in the near future to determine which issues and services are regarded as important by county residents.

One issue that the commissioners are trying to tackle is the Blaine Manor senior care facility in Hailey, which the county operates at a $700,000 annual deficit. The commissioners are considering asking voters to approve an override of the county's property tax levy rate next May to help cover the facility's shortfall.

However, the commissioners do not have much time to contemplate that decision, as they would need to begin the process of preparing the vote by mid-March.

"We now find ourselves playing very close to the edge," Schoen said about the county's financial position, especially in regard to reserves. "We need to be prudent and plan for the future. This isn't about putting just one item on the block."

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