County balances budget - barely

Joshua Sebold
Staff Writer

For the time being the county general fund budget appears to be in some form of relative balance, although county officials fear that may be a temporary state.

The nerve-wracking question mark looming over the upcoming fiscal year will be $375,000 in penalties and interest from unpaid property taxes that could arrive in the county counsel budget, but might not come in on schedule.

County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad said he’d “lost confidence” that the funding would show up in time to be used in this budget.

Acting County Counsel Brian Morris indicated new information made it impossible for him to predict whether the funding would come in this year or be delayed to a later budget.

In an e-mail Ingstad explained that one of the larger payments hanging in the balance was from Gold Mountain.

He added that some of his and Morris’s heartburn in terms of when the payment could be expected came from the fact that the resort was “exploring its options on not having to pay.”

Asked if it was safe to assume that the county was not in favor of Gold Mountain “not having to pay,” Ingstad responded, “You got that right.”

Back at the meeting, Indian Valley Supervisor Robert Meacher explained that the funding was a one-time deal, meaning the county would likely have to address that hole in this budget or the next one unless revenues improved dramatically in the upcoming year.

Aside from this potential stumbling block, the county Board of Supervisors left an all-day session a little after 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 15, with a balanced budget.

That balancing process saw the veterans services department reduce personnel while director Sheryl Austin and the supervisors promised to maintain the current level of service, with help from the county health department answering phones and providing some customer service.

The information technology, museum and library departments all found creative ways to keep employees that had been on the edge of the chopping block.

Plumas Corporation and its visitors bureau survived the day with a  $72,000 cut in county funding, compared to last year’s $230,000 contribution, which director John Sheehan told the board would likely result in at least one full position elimination.

In a short phone interview the next day, Sheehan said the Plumas Corporation board was hoping to avoid laying off an individual person and considering reducing time on up to five positions to spread the pain around.

The county currently plans to use $23,000 of the savings from that cut to fund part of the assistant museum manager position, with the rest of the Plumas Corporation savings going into a line item which will be available for the county to give out for local tourism and economic development projects or efforts in a request-based system.

Groups like the chambers, Plumas Arts and Plumas Corporation will likely be sending in proposals for that funding, but it appears that anyone with an idea will be able to apply.

The draft budget the board settled on also used $215,000 in reserves, $200,000 in contingency funds and $60,000 from two furlough days, which the board added near the end of the budget workshop.

Ingstad, who suggested the furlough days, said the county, including non-general fund departments, would be closed except for essential services on those two days.

Ingstad has voiced doubts at various times about whether furloughs would hold up against legal challenges, as there are currently more than 30 ongoing lawsuits in the state addressing that topic.

He told the board it was still worth trying in hopes of avoiding another $60,000 expenditure from contingencies.

The draft general fund budget’s contingency line item contains $400,000, compared to $600,000 last year.

The county’s general fund reserves will be at $1.9 million, which Ingstad said was about the same level as when he came to the county.

He said the reserves grew to a peak of $2.4 million in 2008 before falling back again.

The contingency fund has fallen in recent years from $700,000 in the 2008-09 budget to $400,000 in the current draft.

In a day filled with numbers, the most striking was 85.65, the amount of positions Ingstad reported the county had eliminated since the year 2006.

Ingstad said the majority of those positions were vacant, but reminded the board that many of them also used to be filled.

He said those positions would have cost $4.5 million if still in today’s budget.

That number doesn’t include other non-personnel line item cuts that have occurred over that period.

For many in the room, those two figures were a reminder of the tough decisions the county has made in the last few years to avoid the fiscal quagmire that the state, feds and other counties currently find themselves in.

More thorough examinations of several of the more prominent budget topics and discussions will appear in next week’s paper.

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