After soliciting ideas from department heads for further budget cuts of up to 10 percent, the Blaine County commissioners on Thursday discussed ways to reduce a current shortfall of $500,000 in a $22.6 million draft fiscal year 2015 budget.
To comply with state law, the commissioners will need to adopt a tentative budget this year by Aug. 12. After that, the budget can be reduced, but not increased. A final budget will need to be set by Sept. 2. The new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
The difference between anticipated revenues and expenses has been whittled down from about $1.4 million since the budgeting process began this spring. However, the county is faced with previously unanticipated expenses of about $700,000 for the prosecution and defense of Keith Eric Blankenship in a murder trial set for January, $150,000 in continuing legal actions brought by convicted murderer Sarah Johnson and about $400,000 for a higher-than-expected cost of replacing the old courthouse roof.
“The cost of providing government services continues to increase, and the county has very limited tools for increasing its revenue stream.” Commissioner Larry Schoen said. “We’re actually in a position that it’s not a one-time deficit—it’s a long-term structural deficit that we really need to address.”
By state law, the county can increase its regular property tax revenue by no more than 3 percent each year.
A sort of “budget summit” meeting, attended by all county elected officials and other department heads, was held Thursday at the county Annex Building in Hailey to discuss the savings measures submitted. If approved, the suggested cuts will reduce the shortfall to $274,000. The remainder would need to come from a $3.3 million reserve fund.
“I think that if we continue to dip into reserves to fund our budget, that’s not a good practice.” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said.
She said she’d like to keep reserves at about 15 percent of the total budget, and, in an interview, County Clerk JoLynn Drage said she considered $2 million to be a minimum.
However, McCleary said the deficit does not have to be eliminated in one year. She said she supported about $200,000 of the $274,000 in additional cuts offered by the various departments. She said the full complement of cuts would unacceptably reduce the county’s ability to provide services and to train its employees properly. She also said that even though revenue has not yet returned to a pre-2009 level, it’s “going in a positive direction.”
“We’re not in a crisis,” she said. “We’re in a serious situation where we want to be as fiscally responsible as possible. Spending $300,000 of our reserves is not unreasonable.”
The commissioners considered, but disfavored, cuts to employee salaries. County Administrator Derek Voss presented several options for saving money by reducing personnel expenses, including:
l A saving of $240,000 next year by freezing salaries.
l A saving of $150,000 next year by freezing currently open positions.
l A saving of $120,000 next year by offering a two-week furlough to nonessential personnel.
l An annual $400,000 saving by reducing staff levels by 5 percent.
l An annual $300,000 saving by not filling vacated positions for the next three years. The county has an annual employee turnover of 10 to 15 percent.
Savings achieved through the salary freeze would include eliminating a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase and a 1.5 percent merit-pay pool contained in the draft 2015 budget.
However, Schoen said that with the economy improving, reductions in salaries and benefits would prompt employees to seek jobs with private businesses, resulting in higher expenses later.
“I don’t think we should balance the budget on the backs of employees,” he said.
Voss also told the commissioners that the county could save about $300,000 per year by reducing its hours of operation from 10 hours per day, four days a week, to nine hours. Commissioner Jacob Greenberg suggested that the county tally the number of visits to county offices by members of the public to determine which times of the day experience the most traffic. He pointed out that maintaining office hours until 6 p.m. is helpful to working people.
Greenberg also suggested that the county reduce its level of contributions to outside agencies and organizations. He said he had identified $21,000 in cuts that he considered reasonable, and Voss presented a scenario that contained $100,000 in cuts.