Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Commissioners perform balancing act

County weighs social service funding against tax hikes


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Conflicting public input made county budget decisions difficult on Monday, when more than 40 residents begged the Blaine County commissioners not to cut funding for outside organizations while at the same time protesting higher property taxes.

"I don't think there is an organization on this list that isn't meritorious," said county resident and developer George Kirk during Monday's meeting. "But you have to balance that. You have to balance that with a tax base that is struggling."

The board's three-hour marathon budget workshop resulted in a final budget that the commissioners will vote on later this month. The proposed final budget is roughly the same as the tentative budget, set last week at just over $26.4 million in expenses.

Outside agencies such as the Senior Connection and Mountain Rides bus service would all be funded at fiscal 2011 levels. The Hunger Coalition and Sustain Blaine would see increases in county funding.

"The budget we're putting forward is a stable one," said Commissioner Angenie McCleary. "I don't think that we can meet our fiscal priorities and what Blaine County needs with further cuts."

Commissioners say they will take the allowable nearly 6 percent increase in the county portion of property taxes to fund the 2012 budget. County homeowners will see an increase of about $5 per $100,000 in home value on next year's property taxes.

The amount may seem minimal, but it was enough to draw protests from at least one county resident. Russ Horn, a rental property owner, said his tenants are already struggling to pay rent.

"You may have reached the bottom of the well," Horn said Monday.

Bellevue resident Jerry Hayward submitted a written comment that was read into the record Monday morning, urging commissioners to pare down expenses.

"Everyone is absolutely against higher property taxes," Hayward wrote. "It isn't right and there is a lot of waste and places you can cut."

But some residents, most of whom were involved in the outside agencies threatened with reduced funding, say they would gladly pay more to keep essential services up and running.

"As much as I am sensitive to the tax and economic pressures, the needs are even higher in this environment," said Terry Basolo, executive director of the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition.

Much of the testimony ran in favor of keeping funding for The Hunger Coalition, which residents said aided families in need during the recession and allow them to survive.

Laurie Verns, a single mother with type 1 diabetes, said during the meeting that The Hunger Coalition literally saved her family when she became unemployed last year.

"With two unemployed parents and two small children, we still made too much money to qualify for food stamps," she said, tearing up. "Had it not been for them, my family would have starved."

Jeanne Liston, executive director of The Hunger Coalition, said the $10,000 that the coalition requests from the county is the only government funding the group receives every year. Forty-five percent of the organization's clients are children, she said, half of whom are under 5.

"People can argue that adults may not be deserving of our food, but it's hard to imagine telling a child they don't deserve to eat," she said. "No children should go to bed hungry in our county."

Commissioners proposed a boost in the coalition's funding from $5,000 in 2011 to $10,000 for 2012 as a result of the passionate testimony.

Commissioner Larry Schoen fought the increase, however. Though he admitted that "$5,000 worth of food is a lot of food" that could go to families in need, he said he worried about the statement made by using taxpayer dollars to fund the organization.

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"Somewhere we have to draw the line," he said.

But at least two residents said they'd be willing to pay the extra taxes to save the services. Sunny Grant, county employee and new Hailey homeowner, said she was "eager" to pay her property taxes if it meant helping agencies such as The Hunger Coalition. Patricia Swartling, executive director of the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, agreed.

"If that's all it takes, I think a few of us can bring lunch to work a few more times a week or not go out for that coffee," she said.

The board approved the full allowable increase, in part because recent legislative actions have resulted in more county expenses. The county has seen a substantial increase in court-ordered mental holds since the Department of Health and Welfare office in Bellevue closed last year. As a result, the county is $114,000 over budget in its "mental holds" budget line.

"You can draw a direct line from decisions made in Boise to county expenses," Commissioner Tom Bowman said. "I'm going to take the [full amount] to pay for those decisions and the impacts it's made on the county."

One major policy change included in the final budget draft is that elected officials would not receive a 1 percent cost-of-living raise unless revenue collection matches projections. Bowman had suggested elected officials not receive any raise at all, but was fought on that front by Commissioner Angenie McCleary.

"Public office is not a sacrifice—it's an opportunity," she said. "By continually putting elected officials in a different pool and not compensating them fairly, we continue to erode the ability of every individual to run for office."

Increases would equate to a roughly 20 cents-per-hour increase for the commissioners. McCleary argued that salaries and benefits have already been cut significantly by eliminating three positions, cutting employee benefits by $300,000 and cutting County Administrator Derek Voss' weekly hours from 40 to 32. She said those cuts more than make up for the cost of wage increases, roughly $185,000.

"These actions, though politically unfavorable, are the right and fair thing to do," she said.

The final budget draft will be presented to the board for a vote on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Final Draft Highlights

The final budget draft will include:

- County portion of the property tax increase of almost 6 percent, about $5 per $100,000 in value.

- Outside agencies such as Mountain Rides, Senior Connection and the Wood River Wolf Project funded at 2011 levels.

- Funding increase of $5,000 for the Hunger Coalition.

- $5,000 for Sustain Blaine.

- Funding of $46,000 for a 4-H coordinator position at the University of Idaho Blaine County Extension office.

- County wage increases totaling $185,000.




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