County wrangles a 2014 budget

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WALLA WALLA — A combination of cuts and draws on reserve funds appears to have brought Walla Walla County to the verge of a balanced budget.

After a Monday afternoon workshop, commissioners unanimously approved a motion to bring expenditures into line with revenues while preserving the county’s current expense reserve fund equal to three months of expenditures.

During the following three-hours of talks, commissioners repeatedly warned again that while the county has been able to avoid layoffs and cuts in service so far, the time is fast approaching when those may be unavoidable due to falling revenues and rising expenses.

A motion by Commissioner Greg Tompkins called for first sending individual budgets back to any departments that had a reduction in income and did not follow a mandate to reduce expenses by the same amount.

Tompkins’ motion then called for taking money from three reserve funds to maintain the 25 percent reserve, mandated by commissioners in 2000, as well as allow a part-time position in the county’s agriculture extension office to be converted from a half-time position to full-time.

Those actions, Tompkins said in his motion, “would balance our budget with basically no budget amendments unless there is revenue to offset it for 2014.”

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a public hearing on the 2014 budget at their Dec. 2 meeting.

The budget motion came on the heels of a lengthy discussion involving Tompkins and fellow commissioners Perry Dozier and Jim Johnson, county Auditor Karen Martin, county Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner plus other elected officials and a number of department heads.

At the start of Monday’s workshop, Martin reported that the most recent round of cuts and adjustments showed requested expenditures from the current expense fund of about $16 million while 2014 revenues were projected at slightly more than $15 million, leaving a difference of $1,028,909. That would have left the ending fund balance, which is the reserve fund, at about $151,000 below the mandated level.

Using reserve funds to make up for budget shortfalls is not sustainable, Johnson said. “(We’re) trying to balance budgets on the backs of saving accounts,” he noted.

Commissioners and officials also complained about how some elected offices and departments responded to the call to make cuts in expenditures equal to any cuts in revenue while others did not.

“You are nickel-and-diming us to death and yet there are budgets that are flush enough to afford cable TV,” Heimbigner told the commissioners, referring to installation of that service in Superior Court.

Martin, along with county Assessor Debra Antes and county Clerk Kathy Martin also said they were operating on bare minimums.

“I have cut everything I can cut,” Kathy Martin told commissioners. “I could use another full-time position, but I haven’t asked for it. I think that other offices should be the same way.”

Karen Martin warned that further cuts in her office, which is in charge of auditing the county’s finances among other duties, could leave the county open to worse losses.

“Quite frankly if we keep going down this road, we have a real potential for fraud,” she said. “If we don’t have the staff to do this, we’ll lose a lot more than $150,000.”

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

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