WALLA WALLA — Between now and December, Walla Walla County officials will be working to close a $1.6 million gap in their 2014 budget.
That gap, and county finances in general, were the subject of a meeting on the budget process put on by county commissioners Monday. County officials must balance the 2014 budget by the end of this year when, by law, commissioners must approve the final document.
Monday’s meeting produced no immediate solutions to the budget gap, which primarily involves the current expense fund that pays for much of the county’s day-to-day operations.
According to the preliminary budget prepared by the county Auditor’s Office, requested expenditures from the 2014 current expense fund are about $16.6 million while projected revenues total about $15 million.
During Monday’s meeting, county commissioners Perry Dozier, Jim Johnson and Greg Tompkins took turns with Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner and Auditor Karen Martin in outlining the county’s finances. Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, also discussed the financial vise all of the state’s 39 counties are in due to flat revenues versus climbing costs.
Both Tompkins and Dozier noted that the county, so far, has been able to avoid having to lay off employees and have not asked for an increase in property taxes. But the continuing uncertainty over the economy, coupled with concerns about rising costs make the future uncertain, Dozier said.
“If the economy doesn’t turn around, there is no question that the current county budget spending, from the current expense fund and the Law and Justice Fund, is not sustainable,” he told the audience.
The latter fund comes from a sales tax approved by voters in 2003 which is dedicated specifically for criminal justice money lost due to elimination of the state motor vehicle excise tax under Initiative 695.
During a question-and-answer session that which followed the presentations, one audience member asked why commissioners couldn’t ask county employees to take pay cuts to help curtail costs. Dozier replied that the majority of the county’s employees are under union contracts and commissioners cannot change those terms.
“We don’t have the ability to go back and give them pay cuts” he said.
County elected officials have already seen their pay frozen for the past two years and have also paid back wages during last year’s furlough days, Dozier said and the commissioners’ pay is frozen through 2016.
Martin said that in regards to county staffing levels, many offices are already operating at minimum levels.
“We’re already three people short,” she said about her office. “We’re operating on a bare (bones) budget as it is.”
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318.