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County balanced budget — with lots of cuts

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

Plumas County has a balanced budget. And just about everyone in the county will be affected by the cuts it contains.

After weeks of slashing and debate, the Board of Supervisors agreed on a budget laced with cuts and closures during its Tuesday, Aug. 16, meeting.

The budget’s impact will be far-reaching.

Residents will notice county offices closed on Fridays. Most of the county’s general-fund employees will absorb a 10 percent pay cut.

Exactly when the closures and cuts will begin is the only thing yet to be decided. The county is still negotiating with the employee unions.

The supervisors are scheduled to adopt the final budget during their Sept. 6 meeting. Any changes would require a four-fifths approval by the board.

Many of the final cuts were hashed out during the public comment session and workshop at the board’s Aug. 16, meeting.

With a few alterations, the board followed the recommendations of the county’s budget committee, led by County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad and Supervisors Lori Simpson and Robert Meacher.

Ingstad said it’s hardly fair that general-fund employees are making most of the sacrifices.

“(The cost of) running a government is basically people,” Ingstad said. “It’s their salaries and benefits. It’s not fair. I wish we could make it more fair.”

Ingstad praised the supervisors for making the tough decisions. They are the sorts of decisions the board likely will face again next year as the local economy continues to shrink.

Graeagle resident Larry Fites said he appreciates the board’s work.

“This is probably the 39th year I’ve been here in this kind of a situation. And I just want to say that I think in those 39 years I probably haven’t seen a more savvy board all around,” Fites said during the public hearing. “And I commend you for your efforts, and Jack and his staff, because we’ve never had it tougher than this. But somehow I have the confidence that you are going to get us through it. Keep up the good work.”

The budget cuts were necessary because the county has $1.4 million less to spend this year.

Most of the lost revenue is because of declining property values. The county’s property tax revenue is down $700,000 from last year, and more than $1 million over the last two years.

As a result, county workers are expected to begin furloughs in the near future. The furloughs will be in the form of a reduced workweek. Employees will work four nine-hour days with Fridays off.

The sheriff’s office, probation department and the district attorney’s office are exempt from the furloughs. However, those departments were cut in other areas. The sheriff’s office agreed to cut its budget by $250,000.

The three departments face a substantial increase in expenses when the state begins transferring inmates to the county correctional system in October.

County employees will also begin paying an additional $50 per month toward their health insurance.

The county is expected to save more than $400,000 through the furloughs and insurance concessions.

General fund appointed department heads have also been instructed to furlough and pay the additional insurance premium. That will provide an additional $53,657 savings.

The department heads affected are: county administrative officer, county counsel, planning director, facility services director, building official, information technology director, agriculture commissioner, human resources director and museum director.

The county has eliminated 105 positions since the recession began. At least three more jobs will be cut in this budget. A job was eliminated in the county administrative office, records management and the facilities department.

Staffing will be reduced, but not eliminated, in the Chester, Greenville and Portola branch libraries.

The county’s fair staff will take cuts across the board.

On Aug. 2, the supervisors voted to issue layoff notices to the fair’s manager and fiscal coordinator. However, the manager has agreed to take a 50 percent pay cut. The cut originally included the manager’s benefits. But the board voted to retain the benefits and plans to renegotiate the contract.

The fair’s fiscal coordinator and maintenance supervisor  will take 10 percent pay cuts.

County travel was cut by 50 percent for a savings of $35,000.


Tourism funding

In a reversal of its earlier decision, the board decided to budget $78,000 for tourism and economic development.

The board previously eliminated all funding to non-county organizations. However, after much discussion Aug. 16, the board changed its mind.

Supervisor Sherrie Thrall praised the county’s chambers of commerce for working together.

“I see them doing so much good work and coming to the table for the first time in years, working together,” Thrall said. “Now they are working together, and the first thing we do to them is yank the rug out from under them financially.

“I have a hard time funding anything outside of the county when I see that we are barely able to cover the things that are the basic responsibility of Plumas County to provide to our citizens. But, by the same token, I do believe we have to invest something.”

Supervisor Jon Kennedy questioned whether $78,000 was enough to accomplish anything. But he said it was better than nothing.

“We gave (the visitors bureau) $150,000 forever, and then zero. There was no weaning-off process,” Kennedy said. “It still seems a little irresponsible for us to just kick ’em out the door.”

The board voted to put Ingstad in charge of deciding how and when the $78,000 would be appropriated.


Potential legal expenses

For the first time during this budget process, the county decided to factor potential legal liabilities into its 2011-12 expenses.

County Counsel Craig Settlemire recommended adding $450,000 to the budget for legal costs that could come due during the fiscal year.

The costs, which could be much less than $450,000, prompted the supervisors to increase the general fund contingency account by $100,000.

Ingstad said additional money from the county’s $1.9 million reserve fund would be used if necessary.


Rumor control

The county’s libraries are not going to close. Limited hours? Yes. Closing? No.

During the public hearing about a dozen community members gave heart-felt testimonials about the importance of keeping the libraries open.

The board was presented a petition with approximately 300 signatures in support of maintaining library services.

After nearly 20 minutes of listening to passionate pleas to save the libraries, Meacher stepped in.

“Did someone tell you we were closing the libraries?” Meacher asked the audience. “Would you raise your hand if someone told you we were closing the libraries?”

Glancing at the raised hands, Meacher quickly insisted that the board has never mentioned closing the libraries.

“Never,” Meacher said. “Never, ever.

“I got calls saying ‘why are you closing our libraries?’ It’s very frustrating. I don’t know who starts rumors like this. I don’t know what their purpose is in our community to start rumors like this,” Meacher said. “Shame on the folks who start these sorts of rumors.”

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