Wednesday, July 20, 2011

County drafts $29 million budget

Early numbers indicate cuts will be necessary


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Though the first drafts of Blaine County's proposed budget were released this week, the numbers are still nebulous, coming in anywhere from $28.9 million to $29.2 million in expenses.

"This is early days," said Commissioner Larry Schoen during the county's first budget hearing Monday. "I urge people not to jump to any conclusions about where the money is going to come from."

Expense requests are up slightly from last year, a maximum of roughly 3 percent. County Clerk JoLynn Drage said these numbers are still in flux, however.

"It's going to change on a daily basis," she said.

The drafts propose two separate budget numbers. Drage described the first, about $28.9 million, as a "bare-bones" number that would just keep all departments operational. The second, $29.2 million, includes auxiliary requests such as additional staff, office equipment and capital improvements.

Drage's recommendations are not included in the current budget proposal draft. She said she could not make any recommendations to balance the budget until she knew what the board's priorities were.

"The decisions that the board needs to make trigger a lot of what my recommendations will be," she said.

To raise or not to raise?

The county voted not to take an allowable 3 percent increase in property tax revenue last year, but might have to this year to fund some of the larger requests.

Drage said the county can either leave property tax revenue where it is, take an allowed 3 percent increase or take the allowed 3 percent plus a "foregone" amount, the increase the county could have taken last year but chose not to.

The difference in revenue between the first and third options is about $518,000.

Current draft proposals show a shortfall ranging from $588,000 to $1.3 million in tax-supported funds, but Drage said many departments will use reserves to fund larger capital requests, and reserve funds are not included in revenue projections.

"The grand totals are misleading," she said.

Still, Schoen said the difference was significant enough that the county may not be able to fund anything beyond its statutory obligations.

"We have a serious gap here," he said. "I don't think we'll be able to afford everything that is in the budget right now."

Cost of doing business

The county's draft includes $93,000 for employee salary increases. Rather than being allocated based on merit or an across-the-board cost-of-living increase, County Administrator Derek Voss said, the funds would only go toward bringing certain county employees' wages up to market rate.

The raise would only apply to employees who have been at the county for more than four years.

"I would not be in favor of an across-the-board cost-of-living increase," said Commissioner Angenie McCleary, but added that she thought it would be "appropriate" to raise county wages so they would be competitive with the market rate.

"People are more responsible and engaged when they are being paid fairly," she said.

Another major expense is reflected in the requests for capital improvements, such as $273,000 for a new roof on the county courthouse.

Capital improvement budgets have been frozen for two years, and Schoen said he worried that delaying funding requests such as a roof replacement and new vehicles for the Sheriff's Office could lead to more expenses down the line.

"We're dancing close to the edge, in my view," he said.

McCleary said she supported funding the roof in general, but needed more information before making a decision.

"I understand the need for the roof, but I don't have any context for whether that is the highest need," she said.

What's next

Whatever the final numbers may be, county commissioners agreed that cuts will need to be made.

"We're going to need all the savings we can get," McCleary said.

Schoen said Tuesday that county funding for outside agencies such as the Crisis Hotline, the Hunger Coalition and the Advocates could see "wholesale cuts."

"People in our community are having to cut back, and they want government to cut back," he said.

The county will continue budget hearings today and tomorrow, with the goal of wrapping up discussion by Thursday afternoon. A preliminary budget must be set by Aug. 1, in preparation for final budget approval in September.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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