After trimming more than $750,000 from department requests and existing expenses, Blaine County commissioners on Wednesday approved a $25.3 million tentative fiscal year 2014 budget.
By state law, a final budget must be set by Sept. 9. The final budget can be reduced from the tentative budget, but not increased.
This year’s budget assumes a 3 percent increase in property tax collections, the maximum allowed by state law.
The budget is considerably less than the fiscal 2013 budget of $26.7 million, which included about $2 million in funding for the Blaine Manor skilled-nursing facility in Hailey. Operation of the facility will be taken over by a private business on Oct. 1.
The tentative 2014 budget includes a 1 percent increase to the county’s $8.25 million payroll and a $20,400 raise in each of the three commissioners’ salaries, from $61,522 this year to $81,900.
Discussion about staff and elected officials’ salaries and employee health insurance occupied most of the commissioners’ time during budget meetings this month.
County officials’ salaries have been a contentious issue since 2006, when a consulting firm concluded that they were below market rates. All elected officials have received raises since then, including a $6,000 raise for the commissioners last year. This year’s raise puts the commissioners’ compensation at the same level as that of the county clerk, and about $4,000 higher than the assessor and treasurer.
“I don’t have a problem justifying this to anybody,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said. “The commissioners should be compensated at least as much as the lowest-paid elected officials.”
The raise is consistent with a county policy of including elected officials’ salaries with those of staff members on the same “kinds and levels” chart developed by the consultant, which compares their job responsibilities with those of other public- and private-sector positions. Even with next year’s raise, the county commissioners’ salaries are only at the level of newly hired employees. Placing them at a mid-career level would have indicated a salary of $107,000.
“The commissioners are simply in a unique position,” Commissioner Larry Schoen said of the board’s responsibility of setting its own salaries. “This is a way, I feel, to address both the budgetary and the political realities.”
Part of the commissioners’ rationale in awarding the raise was to avoid limiting the position, which all said at one point or another was at least a full-time job, to only the independently wealthy.
“We really do want to attract good officials,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said. “People of different ages and socio-economic positions should be able to apply for this job.”
The tentative budget includes a sheriff’s salary of $102,800, a raise of about $12,000, and a prosecuting attorney’s salary of $117,000, unchanged from this year’s.
The county was facing a 10.8 percent increase in health insurance premiums to keep its existing coverage. After reviewing numerous options for employee medical, dental and vision care, the commissioners settled on an insurance policy that will increase this year’s $1.4 million cost by 4.1 percent. It will raise employees’ annual deductible and reduce the county’s share of coverage for dependents.
Other significant budget allocations agreed upon Wednesday include:
l $150,000 for closing-up costs for Blaine Manor.
l $150,000 for the contingency fund, reduced from this year’s $200,000.
“We’ve been budgeting more precisely, so we haven’t been using the contingency much,” County Clerk JoLynn Drage said.
l $50,000 to pay for ongoing legal proceedings in the Sarah Johnson murder case.
l An additional $6,500 for Mountain Rides Transportation Authority, less than the $29,000 requested by the agency due to a decrease in federal funding, for a total of $130,000.
“They’re one of the most efficient agencies that we co-fund,” Schoen said.
l $100,000 for parts and service for the Road and Bridge Department’s aging fleet of heavy equipment.
l $18,000 for additional computer equipment, including five laptops for sheriff’s deputies’ vehicles, needed to comply with state requirements.
The 2014 budget is the result of an “outcome-based” budgeting process, which the commissioners said was based more on setting goals and searching for ways to achieve them than on simply adding to last year’s expenses. They said the process has improved communication and resource sharing among departments.
“This is absolutely a team effort,” Schoen said. “This is a reflection of an integrated, functioning organization.”