Friday, July 22, 2011

Proposed county budget includes tax hike

Commissioners approve funding to outside agencies

Express Staff Writer

Rejecting an eleventh-hour proposal to more radically cut county services, Blaine County commissioners approved a $29 million budget plan Thursday that includes a county property tax hike of roughly 6 percent.

The process was temporarily derailed when Commissioner Larry Schoen introduced what he called a "radically different" budget plan. The proposal kept county property taxes at current levels, only partially funded some outside community organizations and allowed for a 2 to 3 percent increase in the salaries of county employees.

The plan would have paid for itself by cutting county hours significantly, but at an amount not specified by Schoen.

"It's a compromise, really," Schoen said. "We're not going to take any new taxes, but the citizens of the county need to understand the implications of that."

Commissioner Tom Bowman pointed out that because the expired Land, Water and Wildlife levy will not be collected this year, even if the county raises property taxes by the allowed amount of just under 6 percent, the county's portion of property tax collections will decrease by about 15 percent.

Schoen's proposal would have reduced funding to Mountain Rides bus services by $57,000 compared to fiscal 2011 funding, which he suggested could be made up for by a 50 cent rise in fares.

Blaine County Housing Authority would receive $20,000 less than last year, which Schoen said during a Wednesday budget workshop was enough to keep the authority functioning.

"It's too big a program [to lose]," he said Wednesday. "The county has invested too much money and too much time over the years. If the Housing Authority goes away in its entirety, there is essentially no affordable housing program in Blaine County."

Schoen had previously suggested cutting all funding to outside agencies, including the Hunger Coalition, Sustain Blaine, Mountain Rides and others, based on the premise that county residents do not want new taxes.

"I think people are looking to us for not taking any new taxes," he said Thursday. "I think they are willing to withstand cuts in service."

Schoen compared his philosophy to that of the Legislature, which has cut services such as Medicaid to avoid raising taxes.

Commissioner Tom Bowman said Thursday that he disagreed entirely with Schoen's premise.


"I've had not one person come up to me and say, 'Don't raise my taxes.' Not one person has said, 'Cut county services.' People like what they got," Bowman said. "There are no tea party fanatics here that have raised their heads and said, 'Make government smaller.'"

Bowman's proposal would hold funding to outside agencies to fiscal 2011 levels with the understanding that the county would work with these services through 2012 to help them adjust to much lower funding next year.

The proposed tentative budget would cut all requests for new positions at the county, as well as eliminating one of two county building inspectors while not filling three other positions. The proposal also reduces the county administrator's hours from 40 hours a week to 32, which would save roughly $25,000 per year.

"Obviously, this is a difficult conversation," Commissioner Angenie McCleary said during a Tuesday workshop. "I have a great respect for the work of all of our departments. [But] the role of the government is to serve the needs of the community, and I think the needs of the community are less [in some areas]."

The final proposal also calls for spending about $100,000 out of the county's cash reserves and reducing contingency funds, which are meant to provide for unforeseen expenses such as murder trials, by 50 percent. Reducing the funds the county can draw on during an emergency carries risk, though, as Schoen pointed out Wednesday.

"We're chipping away at the foundations and we can do that this year, but at a certain point, we have to stop," he said.

County Administrator Derek Voss said taking more risk this year was "reasonable," but required thought.

"Is this the time to take more risk for the benefit of the county?" he asked. "It's a real risk, it's not fake risk, and you might have to pay up. [But] maybe this is the year to take more risk."

County Clerk JoLynn Drage said the county had plenty of reserves and that the cuts to contingency funds would not place it at substantially more risk.

"I've said it before—we are one horrible murder case away from having no reserve, and that hasn't changed," she said.

Bowman's proposal was approved by a 2-1 vote, with Schoen opposed.

Expenses can be cut but cannot be added once the tentative budget has been approved.

Drage said the tentative budget would not be set until Aug. 1 and that the expense levels would come in under the currently estimated $29 million before the final budget is set in September.

Katherine Wutz:

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