The Blaine County commissioners will try to trim more than $2.2 million from their initial spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year when budget hearings continue this week at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.
The board convenes at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday to balance the fiscal 2020 tentative budget, which began the week unable to fund nearly 10 percent of the $23.1 million in requested expenditures, according to projections by County Clerk JoLynn Drage, the board’s budget officer.
That’s an improvement over the initial version, which opened with $5.6 million over budget last week.
The first draft included most items on every county department’s wish list, including a $2 million allocation to create an affordable housing trust fund suggested by Commissioner Dick Fosbury.
“The theory was, shoot for the stars and you’ll land on the moon,” Drage said. “They ask for everything in the process.”
One hearing last week knocked roughly $3.4 million off that deficit, mostly by cutting the proposed housing trust account. From here, the decisions get harder. And, after spending into reserves to finance the current fiscal year, the margin is slimmer.
“I felt that they used a little more of the reserve than they should have last year,” Drage said. “In my mind, it wasn’t sustainable.”
Even spending the remaining $2.08 million of it this year, the county would fall short.
“We’re going to have to use all of our available reserves,” Drage said. “This is a true deficit.”
Right now, the draft budget is based off of a set of assumptions she makes as county budget officer. Drage factored in a 3 percent increase in property tax revenue—the maximum allowed by state law—and a 4 percent raise to staff pay, split evenly into an across-the-board increase and a merit increase allocated to employees at the discretion of their department head.
It also sequesters 15 percent of the budget for what Drage called “unpredictable, uncontrollable emergencies.” That policy was set by a previous board, and the current commissioners won’t touch it.
“I remember the [Sarah] Johnson [murder] case, and where we would be without that reserve,” Drage said. “I remember the fires—and, yes, we got money back, but it was two or three years later. You have to have that reserve, because things happen.”
For smaller unforeseen expenses, the budget keeps a $500,000 contingency fund.
On Monday, Drage had a list of 36 new requests and possible reductions that the commissioners will comb through in the coming weeks, including a range of new positions, capital purchases, construction and nonprofit requests.
The largest item left on that list is an additional $350,000 to back ARCH Community Housing Trust’s application with the Idaho Housing and Finance Association to build 60 affordable housing units on the former Blaine Manor site, bringing the county’s total commitment to $500,000. Other possible outlays include $330,000 to renovate the basement of the Old County Courthouse into new offices, $160,000 for four patrol vehicles and $113,900 to add a new attorney to the prosecutor’s staff.
Per Idaho code, the tentative budget must be published no later than the third week of August—this year, that means Aug. 13. The final budget will be set on Sept. 3.
Until then, every line item is open for negotiation.
“There hasn’t been a single decision made,” Drage said.