County closes budget gap

  As the supervisors struggled to close a $147,000 spending gap during the waning hours of its final budget workshop, talk turned to closing the museum or severely slashing the fair.

  “I still come back to the museum,” Supervisor Terry Swofford said. “They could run it with volunteers.”

  Though the board already cut staff time down to one person and handed off services and supplies expenses to the museum’s foundation, the county’s general fund would still need to contribute nearly $115,000 to the museum.

  Earlier in the budget hearings, the supervisors had discussed leasing the county-owned building to the foundation for $1 per year and allow that entity to operate it.

  Supervisor Sherri Thrall said such a decision was premature for this year. “I think we should start that conversation with the museum,” she said, “(and let them know) here’s what we’re looking at.”

  When asked for suggestions about what could be cut, Thrall turned to the fair.

  She acknowledged that the fair served a useful purpose, but “I would tell the fair you need to operate in your revenue.”

  She said such a decision might encourage the fair manager to find more business for the fairgrounds.

  Supervisor Jon Kennedy said if had to compare the museum with the fair, he would have to consider how much revenue each brings to the county.

  “The museum goes before the fair,” he said.

  As discussion continued, Chairman Robert Meacher asked about the municipal court revenues such as traffic fines, a missing piece of the budget puzzle.

  While money was budgeted to fund the court, the corresponding revenue has not been calculated.

  Meacher and Susan Scarlett, the board’s financial consultant, left the room. When Scarlett returned she said simply, “We are balanced. We are done.”

  With that, Meacher banged the gavel and the 2012-13 budget workshops wrapped up.

  The board began budget public hearings yesterday, Tuesday, Sept. 25, with the expectation the final budget could be resolved in one day because the discussion that normally takes place during the public hearings as already occurred during the workshops.

  “I can’t believe every board of supervisors doesn’t do budget workshops,” Kennedy said during an interview last week. “It makes you so much more aware of what’s going on. It’s an extraordinary lesson.”

  Kennedy would like to conduct similar workshops with the other non-general fund departments, such as social services and public health.

  When asked about the last minute revenue news from the muni court fund, Kennedy said, “It surprised everybody,” and added that he was glad Meacher had held on to that missing piece of information and asked about it.

  Until that happened, Kennedy said he “was absolutely convinced that we had to still make layoffs.”

  Kennedy also discussed what he termed his “rant” during the final budget workshop when he publicly criticized everyone involved in the negotiation process.

  “It was meant to offend,” he said, explaining he has been frustrated that the negotiations can’t be settled.

  “Selfish people really aren’t thinking about the big picture,” he said.

  He added, “We could save jobs and provide essential services even more,” if concessions were made.

  After last week’s final budget workshop, Scarlett double-checked all of the figures and sent final numbers to each of the department heads for them to review.

  “We’ve cut almost $4 million,” Scarlett said of the budget that has seen revenues and expenditures seesaw since she began working on the process in May.

  “The important message to get out is that this has been a lengthy process, but the board finally has a balanced budget,” she said. “And we’re not using to reserves to do it.”

  When all of the totals are tabulated, Scarlett expects there to be at least $50,000 more in revenue than originally calculated, largely from the muni court fund.

  She said she would recommend that the board put that money either into its reserves or its contingency fund.

  Meacher said he would probably agree with that recommendation, but he is looking forward to the time when the board can start adding back what has been cut.

  “I think we might have almost hit bottom,” he said. “I think we can start slowly rebuilding.”

  Meacher is optimistic that property taxes will begin to increase and that other revenues that have long been expected will actually flow into county coffers.

  Kennedy said he would be inclined to add some of the $50,000 back to areas that had been cut during the workshops, such as facilities maintenance, where the cuts could make it difficult for basic services such as snow removal to be done this winter.

  But for Kennedy and Scarlett, a timely mid-year review of the budget is critical to make sure that the county stays on track financially.

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