WALLA WALLA -- As Walla Walla County commissioners close in on balancing the county's 2012 budget, they are also being warned the future financial picture is a good news-bad news scenario.
Members of the county budget committee met with commissioners Nov. 7 and presented recommendations for the 2012 current expense budget. That portion of the budget pays for much of the county's day-to-day operations. Other funds, such as the public works and county road fund, public health, human services and the juvenile justice center, were not the subject of the committee's report.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget Dec. 5.
The committee members, county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner, county Auditor Karen Martin and Commissioner Gregg Loney, said the proposed budget is still about $45,000 out of balance. But, by comparison, the first preliminary budget submitted in early September was out of balance by a little more than $2 million.
One bright note in the committee's recommendations is that the county will be able to do away with furlough days next year and provide employees with cost-of-living adjustments.
This is because of concessions made by employees, controlled spending and unexpected revenue from sales and real estate taxes which will leave the county with a greater ending fund balance this year than expected, the committee reported.
However, committee members warned that if the economy does not turn around "there is no question but that the current county budget spending is not sustainable and deeper cuts, as well as furloughs or layoffs, will be necessary (in 2013)."
At the Nov. 7 meeting, commissioner Greg Tompkins said he was worried the county was spending when it ought to be saving.
"My concern is ... how do the employees in Walla Walla County feel about reading a statement that says we are going to spend the money this year because we've been conservative and we've been good ... But if (the economy) doesn't turn (around ... you employees may lose your jobs?" he said.
"It just gives me a little pause that if we spend this money because people want us to spend it ... is we're putting people's livelihoods in jeopardy."
But Martin said her impression is that county employees will appreciate being paid back for agreeing to furlough days and other cutbacks.
"I think (the employees') feelings is that you came to them and asked in a time of need and they gave," she said. By giving back "in a year from now, if you ask for more furloughs again, they are going to know that it is a true need again. So they understand the correlation between where we were then, where we are at now and where we could be in the future."
But Tompkins maintained that if the economy remains poor, spending down the reserves now could come back to haunt everyone.
"I hope it's not worse than just furlough days. I just hope it doesn't go beyond that," he said.
Heimbigner said he was also uncomfortable with lowering the ending fund balance, but he also agreed with Martin.
"It's a scary budget," he said. "It's the biggest budget use of ending fund balance I think I've seen in the 13 years I've been here. I think it's even more than we used when (Initiative) 695 happened. Because we took some major cuts back in 1999 and 2000 ... and that's when we established the 25 percent fund balance that we can use.
"But I am like Karen. If ... we build on the fund balance and we put more in reserves, I think we have those questions from the employees (which are) that, 'Well, everybody's cut, we gave stuff up ... and you guys did good and built up the fund balance and why aren't you using a little bit of that to help us out?'"
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318.
On the net
Walla Walla County budget committee's report and recommendations: ubne.ws/sUpOYH
The following are some of the notes and recommendations from the report by the county budget committee to Walla Walla County commissioners:
Reduce the Sheriff's Office budget request from $6.1 million back to about $4.6 million. The increase for items under the current expense fund would be 7.25 percent, which is consistent with other general fund budgets. According to the report, this is still slightly higher than most elected officials' offices and other department budgets. However, this reflects the increase in deputies' salaries that will be paid in 2012 due to a cost of living adjustment increase payment that was deferred in 2011.
Sheriff's Office administrative position salaries to be increased by the allowed cost-of-living adjustment amount only.
Consideration should be given to Sheriff's Office one-time budget requests. No individual recommendations are being made as the committee believes commissioners, as the legislative authority of the county, should make those decisions. However, use of existing reserve funds to provide some money to cover those items the commissioners deem appropriate is recommended. There was also a question as to whether or not some of the requests could be funded over a period of time, rather than all at once.
County commissioners should have a discussion and consider whether to levy the 1 percent property tax as allowed by state law.
Law and Justice tax fund budget
The 2012 Law and Justice budget as submitted will require further reductions in the fund's reserve balance. The committee had some concerns regarding the rate at which this fund balance was being expended,as there is no question it is not sustainable. The committee recommended that a software request by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office be moved to the Technology Services Fund and that a $200,000 request by the Sheriff's Office for vehicle replacement be looked at and possibly reduced to $150,000, with $50,000 of that amount funded from the current expense vehicle fund.
The committee offered no opinion on the transfer of funds from the Law and Justice budget for the formation of a traffic bureau as proposed by the Sheriff's Office "as we believe this is more of a policy decision that should be left up to the (county commissioners)."
Buy security cameras for the courthouse at an estimated cost of $25,000.
Continue the cap on the county's contribution toward the cost of health insurance premiums, which is a slight increase to $825.
Rename the Current Expense Emergency Fund to become the Superior Court and Indigent Defense Emergency fund. Funds to be reallocated for emergency expenditures for Superior Court cases and/r to provide for the defense of people who cannot afford an attorney. The committee noted that "for many years Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht has warned of the fiscal risk to the county due to the costs associated with even one murder trial."
The county auditor's budget is higher in 2012 due to it being a presidential election year, which results in higher costs to conduct elections.
The impact of the property tax payment on behalf of the Blue Mountain Mall will result in a roughly $42,000 increase in the current expense revenue on a one-time basis only.
The recommended 2012 budget is 3.78 percent less than the 2011 adopted budget and the projected ending fund balance is 18.95 percent less. "We hesitate to recommend any further reductions in this fund balance to maintain sufficient reserves to meet needs while supporting the county's current fiscal condition and operations now and in the future," committee members wrote.