Wednesday, July 28, 2010

County budget still in flux

Numbers set high, cuts anticipated

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County's draft budget changed again Thursday as the County Commission finished a first round of hearings and prepared to set a preliminary spending plan for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Current expenses are projected at just over $28 million. However, commissioners were careful to stress that they are far from determining the budget's final figures.

Nothing will be decided for certain until the final budget is set in September, and the county is still nearly a week away from setting a preliminary budget.

"Everything is up in the air," said County Clerk JoLynn Drage. "There has to be a consensus, and it's just not there yet."

The commissioners have yet to agree on issues such as tax increases, employee compensation and the distribution of funding to outside organizations such as The Hunger Coalition and The Drug Coalition.

The latest draft budget reflects several cuts. The 3 percent across-the-board raise in county salaries reflected in the first budget worksheet has been replaced, though the exact amount of funds available for compensation adjustments is still up for debate.

For now, $160,000 has been set aside that could be used to balance "salary inequities," including internal and market discrepancies and providing compensation for additional responsibilities employees may take on.

Drage had included an increase of 3 percent for all county salaries in her draft budget, but that proposal changed when County Administrator Derek Voss presented a new process for making compensation adjustments.

The method of distribution is yet to be determined, but Drage stated that any across-the-board raises have been taken off the table.

Even the amount of funding has not been approved, and Drage said this and other numbers in the latest draft budget could change "drastically" before September.

Voss cited the need to keep county salaries competitive with city salaries and reduce employee turnover. The city of Ketchum approved a 2.5 percent increase in employee salaries in May, though that increase came on the heels of $1 million in unanticipated revenue.

County Commissioner Tom Bowman pushed for cutting the amount of compensation adjustment funding in half, but ultimately the higher number remained in the newest draft.

Traditionally, the county has set expenses in preliminary and draft budgets higher than is actually anticipated. Commissioners can cut expenses after a preliminary budget has been approved, but not increase them.

"We have not made a decision, ultimately," said Commissioner Angenie McCleary. "I'll still be looking for even small ways of reducing [expenses]."

Two vacant county positions, one in the Planning and Zoning Department and one in the assessor's office, will not be filled.

The draft budget still includes a request for a new information systems specialist, but the latest proposal funds the position from the emergency dispatch budget, which is not tax-supported.

Drage said the funding of the position would potentially be provided through the dropping of a $128,000 lease for equipment the emergency dispatch service no longer uses.

The specialist is proposed to cost $72,000 a year for salary and benefits. Remaining funds from the lease's disposal would allow the emergency dispatch service to spend less from reserves.

Salary and benefits for a human resources specialist are also included in this latest draft, though Voss repeatedly stated he did not think the position was appropriate this year.

"I appreciate the recognition, but ... it's not lost on me that we are in very trying financial times," said Voss of the position, which would take over some of his responsibilities.

It remains to be seen whether the position will be part of the final budget.

Part of the reason the numbers are so uncertain is because commissioners don't yet know if county voters will approve a proposed $1.9 million tax levy to help finance costs of operating the Blaine Manor skilled-nursing facility in Hailey.

The county over the last nine years has spent an average of nearly $600,000 per year to support the facility. The county must pass a preliminary budget by Aug. 2, and the levy election is not until Tuesday, Aug. 3.

With anticipated cuts to expenses, Drage said that if the levy passes, the budget might be close to balanced. However, if the levy doesn't pass, the deficit would increase.

"I feel like BP, seeing if the cap is going to hold," said Commissioner Larry Schoen.

If the levy doesn't pass, Drage said the county would attempt to keep the deficit at or below $500,000. Such a deficit could result in a 3 percent increase in county property taxes, and the county would need to spend more of its shrinking reserve funds.

Still, Schoen said no final numbers could be extrapolated from the budget's current form.

"All we're doing is keeping our options open," he said. "The headline number is not the final word."

Katherine Wutz:

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