Despite a flap over proposed salary increases for Blaine County's elected officials and employees, the county commissioners said Tuesday that the salary increases should be considered in a broader context.
"It's really easy for the press to report the hot-button issues, and certainly salaries are a hot-button issue," said Commissioner Larry Schoen.
However, what's been lost in the discussion, he said, is that Blaine County government is more transparent and accountable than ever.
Both Schoen and Commissioner Angenie McCleary defended a budget process that now requires each department to fill out a budget request worksheet that justifies each request based on how it will help the county reach its goals.
For example, for fiscal 2013, the Blaine County Public Safety Facility requested a new position in the jail to improve safety and provide backup for security; Blaine County Road and Bridge requested $327,000 for new equipment. Both requests were granted.
But due to a failure to adequately justify the request, not all were, such as a request from the Blaine County Assessor's Office for $950 for advertising and additional postage. McCleary said during the meeting Tuesday that the office had not clearly outlined how the money would be used, and how it would improve service.
"I think we've made significant improvements in our budget process," she said. "I also think we have made significant improvements in the county."
Both Schoen and McCleary said they feel the county has conducted itself more efficiently, and Schoen said in an interview Thursday that he believes the county has made the most progress in decision making and the budget process itself.
The county currently uses a system called outcome-based budgeting, which was implemented in 2010 by County Administrator Derek Voss. The process bases funding on how well the goals of the departments or organizations align with the county's priorities, which are set by the commissioners at the beginning of the budgeting process.
It also matches salary increases with employee performance.
Schoen said that as part of the process, members of the public can request to look at department funding requests and goals, all of which are clearly outlined in the public hearings as well.
"Every department head that I know has said to us that this is the best budget process they have experienced in their time at the county," he said. "You're not sitting there, as it was when I first started, talking about budget requests without any real basis for funding apart from, 'Can we afford this?'"
McCleary said Tuesday that the process has encouraged employees to find efficiencies—in one case, a position in the Indigent Office was eliminated because employees in other departments were trained to take on those responsibilities.
That elimination will save the county about $50,000 next year, according to County Clerk JoLynn Drage. A request for a temporary employee in the Treasurer's Office was also denied, removing $2,450 from the tentative budget.
"We have evaluated each year the employees that serve Blaine County," McCleary said. "We have looked at efficiency."
Overall, the tentative budget set by the county commissioners—$26.8 million—is down $2.6 million from last year's approved budget.
The final budget is expected to be set next month.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com