Commissioners close in on 2014 budget

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WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners appear poised to approve the county’s 2014 budget after two hours of discussion and debate Friday.

To balance expenditures with projected revenues, commissioners Perry Dozier, Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins unanimously approved a motion to increase all budgets for elected officials and departments by 2 percent over 2013 amounts. That will leave only about $169,000 above the mandated 25 percent reserve in the current expense fund, Dozier said.

A motion by Johnson to increase property taxes for the current expense fund by 1 percent in 2014 was defeated with Dozier and Tompkins voting against it.

Final approval of the budget and property taxes will be before commissioners when they meet Monday and continue their public hearing on both issues. The meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. at the county Public Health and Legislative Building, 314 W. Main St., in Walla Walla.

Although commissioners thought they had achieved a balanced budget in November, uncertainty over whether to increase tax levies, a request to increase funds for veterans’ assistance, a continued imbalance between expenditures and revenues and other financial concerns dashed that hope.

Commissioners have said they have major concerns about unknown expenses the county expects to face in the coming year. Among the question marks are how much a new contract with the Sheriff’s deputies’ union will cost, increased costs for indigent defense and costs to improve court security.

At Friday’s workshop, commissioners acknowledged any decision they made on the budget was unlikely to make everyone happy.

“This is not easy. You know that,” Johnson said at the start of Friday’s workshop. “We appreciate what all of you have done. We don’t expect to walk out of here today with everybody smiling and patting each other on the back saying ‘Hey, good job, you’ve got it all figured out.’ That’s just not going to happen.”

In his opening remarks, Dozier reiterated commissioners’ intention to budget so that some funds remain above the 25 percent reserve in the current expense fund in order to deal with unexpected expenses. The reserve was created by commissioners in 2000 in case of a major fiscal crisis.

“We know we will have some unforeseen expenses out there above people’s 2014 budgets, so that is why we have been trying to work toward that,” he said. Commissioners had hoped to create a cushion of roughly $300,000, which would be about 2 percent above the 25 percent reserve.

Regarding property tax increases, Johnson said Friday he felt it was something commissioners were going to have to weigh at some point due to constantly rising costs.

Although they could not, and do not intend to, balance the budget by raising property taxes, Johnson said, “at some point I think the taxpayers will need to understand there are costs associated with running county government over which our department heads and elected (officials) and commissioners have no control.”

“There are costs that are going up so (much) that even though we could tighten our belts to the point that we’re on the last hole of the belt, so to speak, it would not impact those costs which are rising over which we have no control, such as collective bargaining issues and things of that nature.

“I think it’s important that, even if it’s symbolic ... it sends the message to taxpayers that (says), ‘Don’t look to us to do more with less, because we are doing more with less,’” Johnson continued. “... Look to your neighbors who might be involved with some of the bargaining units who are requesting, and may get through binding arbitration, things that are not commonly available to the general working public. I think we need to shed a little light on that and a property tax increase may be a way to do that.”

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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