Walla Walla County commissioners made a reasonable financial move last week when they stopped the flow of red ink by diverting funds collected from a new tax.
The tax was approved to fund new mental health and substance abuse services. Now about half of the money collected will be used to plug holes in the Human Services Department that oversees those two programs.
It is unfortunate commissioners were forced to make the call. It’s clear some blunders were made to create a situation in which Human Services was funding its operations by tapping its reserve fund.
It also brings into question the wisdom of approving in 2011 the one-tenth of one percent local sales-tax increase to expand services. If there isn’t enough cash to support current programs, it’s risky to start or expand programs.
The tax-hike plan has been a dubious endeavor from the start. It was never clear to us exactly how the money would be spent. It was our hope the matter would have been put to a vote of the people.
No, it’s not legally required, but since many other sales-tax hikes require a vote, it would have made sense to put this one on the ballot. Plus, public debate might have brought more clarity to the matter.
Funds from that tax are now being used as a temporary budget plug. The county will use up to $335,000 from the mental-health tax, which is expected to bring in up to $800,000 a year.
By law, the new sales tax money can be used for existing programs for a limited time — 50 percent of the tax collected in 2012, ramping down to 10 percent by 2016.
Harvey Crowder, interim director of the Human Services department, said the Human Services reserve fund could potentially be exhausted in 18 months if no action is taken.
Crowder has come up with various plans to deal with the issue. For example, he suggests extending the loan payback period for the new Community Service Center building at 1520 Kelly Place from 10 to 15 years.
Crowder took over the department in September after the departure of former Director Daryl Daugs. In the short time he’s been in charge, Crowder seems to be on top of the budget. The action taken should be enough to avoid layoffs or furloughs of staff working with mental health and developmental disability clients.
It seems as if the purchase and remodel of the Kelly Place building wasn’t as wonderful (or cost effective) as originally pitched by Daugs. Payments on the building are contributing to the financial mess.
Still, what’s done is done. Funding for maintenance and mortgage for the building are now a fixed expense.
And care must be taken to ensure services added as part of the tax-approval mandate won’t be budget-busters.
The Human Services budget must be watched carefully so this will not happen again.