Wednesday, August 20, 2014

County to review department efficiencies

Cuts needed to reach balanced budget in 2016

Express Staff Writer

    The Blaine County commissioners on Tuesday directed County Administrator Derek Voss to undertake an “organizational review” of all county departments to find where money could be saved in the fiscal year 2016 budget.
    The idea was proposed by Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, who said the county needs to determine whether it is “optimally staffed.” The commissioners all agreed that a more active strategy is needed to improve efficiency in all departments. Commissioner Larry Schoen pointed out that cost-of-living increases for employee salaries will eat up much of the annual 3 percent increase in property tax revenue permitted by state law.
    “The cost of doing all that we do is increasing dramatically,” he said. “We have a state government that year after year continues to underfund services. We continue to see a shift from state responsibility to county responsibility.”
    However, the commissioners all emphasized that they want to maintain the current level of county services.
    “I don’t think that we need to consider radical proposals that would result in a reduction of services,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “Given the recession, I think we’re in a very good financial position with the reserves that we have.”
    McCleary pointed out that the county has $3.37 million in reserves in the property-tax supported portion of the budget beyond the 15 percent kept on hand for unanticipated expenses.
    She also said revenues other than property taxes continue to increase, and are back up to a level equal with that of 2010, from a low in 2007. She said she felt optimistic that the county will soon be able to balance its budget, which is now running a $200,000 to $400,000 deficit.
    However, Greenberg did not share that optimism, saying that the county has been able to maintain its reserves only through postponing needed capital projects.
    “If we’re reaching into reserves to make up our budget, we’re on the edge,” he said.
    The discussion included a 2-1 stance against proposals made by Greenberg to reduce the county’s funding to Mountain Rides Transportation Authority and the Blaine County Housing Authority for fiscal 2015. The tentative budget includes $108,000 for Mountain Rides and $70,000 for the Housing Authority, both equal to fiscal 2014 expenditures. Greenberg had earlier argued that the two agencies should be subject to the same 10 percent budget cuts asked of county departments.
    However, Schoen and McCleary contended that cuts there would result in an unacceptable level of decrease in services. McCleary said she had been told by Mountain Rides’ director that one daily trip of the bus service’s Valley Route would need to be eliminated to meet the proposed cut. She and Schoen also expressed support for a part-time Spanish-speaking position at the Housing Authority that Greenberg had pointed to as possibly expendable.
    “Their client base has moved much more toward the Spanish-speaking end of the spectrum,” Schoen said. “I look at the practical realities of running that agency and I just don’t support a cut there.”
    Schoen and McCleary also rejected a proposal by Greenberg to place $50,000 in a reserve fund to eventually upgrade equipment for the county’s dispatch service. Among other things, the equipment would permit receipt of a wider variety of messages, such as cell phone photos.
Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress

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