Friday, April 15, 2011

County audit shows drop in expenses

Cutting spending helps compensate for reduced revenue


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer


A graph shows the breakdown of county expenses by department, according to a financial audit released last week. County Clerk JoLynn Drage said the county has been working to reduce expenses in the recession to make up for dropping revenue. Courtesy graphic.

Blaine County staff members haven't acted surprised by the county's healthy fiscal year.

"It's pretty much what I expected," said County Treasurer Vicki Dick. County Clerk Jo Lynn Drage agreed.

"I stay pretty much on top of it," she said.

An audit released last week by accounting firm Condie, Stoker & Associates revealed, however, that the county had managed to drill down on its expenses by almost $2.3 million dollars in the general fund from last year.

According to Drage, the general fund includes most county departments, including land use and building services, the commissioners and her own office.

"We're really trying!" she said of county efforts to reduce expenses.

It's working. Thanks in part to the drop in expenses, the county finished the year with a surplus, adding to its assets by more than $677,000.

Drage said the county essentially had a lockdown on capital expenditures, which are any general fund expenditures of more than $5,000. That helped account for the expense reduction.

"If a heat pump goes out, you've got to have it," she said. "But that's the only type of expenditures we've really had."

A broken heat pump qualifies as an emergency in this climate, Drage said. Replacing it would be a necessity, but more discretionary building improvements have been at a virtual standstill. She said a two-year freeze in county salaries and several positions that have been left unfilled also contributed to the drop in expenses.

However, revenues have dropped as well, and Dick said the county had to keep expenses low to compensate. Two major funding sources dropped significantly from last year: permitting fees and funds from state and local government.

"Building permits were down considerably," Dick said. "At some point, I think, they were $400,000 below projections."

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Licenses and permitting revenue dropped a little more than $300,000 from fiscal 2009.

However, that hardly compares with the more than $1.3 million in lost state and federal funding compared to last year.

"The funding is just not there," Dick said.

The county gets funding from the state as part of a revenue-sharing program, but the amount it receives is down almost 30 percent from 2007.

The reason is simple, Drage said: "The economy just stinks."

She said that despite its level of financial detail, she doesn't use the required yearly financial audit during the county budgeting process. The audit is really meant to look for funds misappropriation and for consistency, she said, and is required by state code for that purpose.

However, Drage and Dick balance the budget themselves to the penny each month, and deal in actual cash figures rather than the "assets"—which can mean trust funds and property—that the audit includes but which cannot be used in budgeting.

"At the end of 2010, my cash balance was $1 million less than what [the audit] showed," Drage said.

Drage said some of the numbers are also misleading, pointing to the listing for the Ketchum Police Department. The listing shows a cost of $1.1 million to the county, but what it doesn't show is that the cost is offset by revenue for calls for service, which is listed under the line item for the Sheriff's Office.

Still, Dick said the audit could influence the commissioners when they begin budget hearings.

"I'm sure it will, but I don't know to what degree," she said. "We've been in kind of a salary freeze, but I don't know if the commissioners will feel there's room in the budget or not."

The county's outcome-based budgeting process, which was implemented last year, requires departments and organizations funded by the county to outline the proposed results of their upcoming projects and how those results match the county's priorities.

Drage said the process begins May 1, when the commissioners distribute a list of this year's priorities to department heads.

Despite the surplus, Drage said, she doesn't predict any major changes. However, she said, she doesn't like to speculate.

"Really, I don't have a clue until I start seeing things come in," she said.

Budget hearings are set to begin in mid-July.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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