The Blaine County Commissioners grappled with the problem of setting the price of government during budget deliberations Monday, struggling to make revenues cover all desired expenses.
County Clerk JoLynn Drage said during the meeting that if the county chooses to tax new construction and take its allowable 3 percent increase in property taxes, that could bring an additional $273,000 to county coffers.
Drage said the 3 percent increase does not provide a 3 percent increase throughout the county budget since the portion of the budget funded by property taxes is less than half the total general fund—last year, it was $8.2 million rather than the total $18 million.
Commissioner Larry Schoen urged the commissioners to approve the 3 percent increase.
"I know my own property value may have declined, and I know that my neighbor's property value may have declined," he said, adding that county property values are down to 2004 levels. "So if I am a citizen, I'm thinking, if property values are at 2004 levels, the price of government should roll back to 2004. Well, a lot has happened."
The proposed county budget for fiscal 2005—the revenue for which was based on 2004 property values—was roughly $13 million. Schoen said that adjusted for inflation, the county budget should be almost 19 percent higher than it was in 2004. However, the proposed budget is only 15 percent higher.
"County expenses have not even kept pace with inflation," he said. "We have reoriented how we spend money, but we have neglected a lot of capital needs of the county."
One major budget request is a retrofit of the county courthouse, roughly $100,000 to fix a large crack where the stairway tower and the main building join. An August report suggested the stairwell could pull away from the building in an earthquake, cutting off emergency access.
County Operations Director Char Nelson also requested $453,000 to repair the courthouse roof and do a $300,000 retrofit of the building that would install braces to tie floor joists to the outside of the building. About $18,000 is needed to upgrade a security system in the Blaine County Annex Building across the street as well, Nelson said last week, and a Road and Bridge shop in Carey is in desperate need of a remodel.
Commissioner Tom Bowman said that for him, fixing the county courthouse is a priority despite its high price tag.
"We have our employees in this building every day, we have the public in this building every day," he said. "We have to try to do something this year. If this building hurts somebody, and we had made the decision not to fix anything, that would weigh heavily on us."
County Administrator Derek Voss suggested that the commissioners could form a building fund, in which the county would set aside a certain amount of money each year to pay for large remodels and heavy equipment such as the road graders that the Road and Bridge Department requested.
"We have some departments where I marvel at their willingness to come in to work every morning," Voss said. "The buildings have just deteriorated."
But the problem, said commissioners, was that there are certainly more improvements needed than there is money to pay for them, even with the allowed increases in property tax revenue.
Drage said money could be used from the county's reserve fund, but that wouldn't solve the larger problem of what to do with ongoing capital expenses. Still, Voss said, it could be a solution to the county's big-ticket remodels that are immediately needed.
"Money needs to be looked at as a tool," he told commissioners. "If it's just to say that you have money sitting someplace, it's of no value. To the extent the board can free up funds for known concerns, I think that's a prudent way to act."
Budget deliberations will continue today at 9 a.m. at the Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com