Walla Walla County commissioners have a difficult task ahead as they have to trim about $1.9 million in spending requests to match the anticipated tax revenue to balance the 2013 budget.
The reality is commissioners don’t have much low-hanging fruit to trim. The county, like most local governments in Washington state, has been forced to trim spending for the past four years. And the vast majority of the funds are already committed to basic operations and mandated expenses.
But the commissioners will, as painful as it might be, find a way to reduce the $16 million in spending requests to match revenue of about $14.1 million. They have no choice — it’s the law. Deficit spending is not allowed and the commissioners passed a resolution in 2000 mandating three months of revenue be set aside in reserve for an economic emergency.
Complicating matters is that the county’s elected officials who oversee offices — prosecutor, sheriff, clerk, auditor, treasurer, assessor, coroner and Superior Court judges — do not answer to the commissioners. They answer directly to the people and are responsible for establishing the priorities in their offices.
It is not the job of commissioners to micromanage those offices. They allocate the funds based on what’s available and what the various departments need. The three commissioners try to determine what is needed from what is merely wanted.
This isn’t the most efficient system of budgeting ever developed, but it is the one put in place when Washington became a state in 1889.
Walla Walla County officials, despite the difficulties, have generally shown themselves to be prudent managers of the taxpayers’ money now and in the past.
The commissioners and other elected officials should be praised for the openness of the current budget discussions. The discussions have been frank and informative. Last week’s session — attended by about 40 people — focused on educating the public.
Commission Chairman Greg Tompkins said the session was “intended to educate people on how the budget process works, the thought processes to go into it and why the commissioners are as fiscally conservative as they are.”
Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner said a major reason the county has established a reserve fund of 25 percent is because it depends on two major employers for a large part of its tax collections — the Boise Paper Solutions plant at Wallula and Broetje Orchards. If one were to have financial trouble or close, the county would suffer a huge revenue hit.
The commissioners and elected officials have until the end of the year to figure out a spending plan. The effort to fully explain the budget process should serve the public well.
Each taxpayer might not agree with every decision, but they should at least understand why the decision was made.