Blaine County leaders are looking ahead to what is expected to be a tight budgeting year, as questions remain about the potential economic impact of COVID-19.

Idaho businesses have already begun to reopen their doors, but local and state officials anticipate that the effects of the pandemic on the economy will likely be felt for months or even years. As Blaine County officials begin this year’s budgeting process, county commissioners say they’re planning to play it safe when it comes to spending.

It’s unknown, at this point, exactly how coronavirus will affect state tax revenue, local property tax payments, revenue from the Blaine County jail and other sources of income for the county. County leaders expect to have a clearer picture of the virus’s financial impact later in the summer.

For now, as Blaine County department heads begin to formulate their budget requests, the commissioners and other county leaders are encouraging them to do so as conservatively as possible.

“These are remarkably uncertain times,” County Administrator Derek Voss said in a commissioners meeting Tuesday. “I don’t think anybody thinks this is going to be business as usual. The likelihood is this is going to be a very challenging year.”

Tightening the county’s financial belt could mean that county employees will not receive raises this year, the commissioners said in the meeting, and some departments might need to hold off on making new hires. County officials may also look into cutting costs for travel and other expenses.

“I would rather be ultraconservative with our numbers at this point,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said.

Several department heads at the meeting Tuesday said they felt it was important that the county prioritize the services required by Idaho law in the budgeting process.

“We’re prepared to make some sacrifices,” Assessor Jim Williams said. “But I’m really concerned about being able to keep up with our statutory requirements.”

Some county departments have already begun to seek out alternative sources of funding in anticipation of budget cuts. On Tuesday, the commissioners gave the Public Defender’s Office approval to apply for a grant from the state’s Public Defense Commission. The bulk of the $163,000 grant would go toward hiring a third attorney for the office.

The office currently employs two full-time attorneys, who often run into scheduling conflicts, Chief Public Defender Justin McCarthy told the commissioners.

“Especially right now, with COVID-19, if I or my deputy are ill it would be a significant burden to try to meet the demands of my clients,” McCarthy said.

Other departments may hold off on making new hires for now. The Sheriff’s Office had initially planned to ask the county to fund another patrol position, Sheriff Steve Harkins said, but has decided not to ask for the position this year.

The county commissioners typically finalize the county’s annual budget in early September, with the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. By then, officials expect to have a better idea of the pandemic’s impact on county revenue.

“I get that we won’t have good data until we have it, but we have to still make decisions,” Voss said. “It’s often the responsibility of leaders to make decisions with imperfect data. That’s nothing new.”

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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