How does the county decide where and how to spend county money? How does the board of supervisors decide where to cut and where to spend? How does the board decide whose ox gets gored and whose ox gets a laurel wreath placed around its neck?
Most of us don’t look forward to balancing our checkbooks, but we realize it’s something we need to do from time to time.
The county’s annual task of coming up with a budget for the following fiscal year starts out in much the same way. The county has to balance its “checking account” for the current fiscal year before it can decide on a budget for the next fiscal year.
The county is just beginning the process of balancing its 2016-2017 fiscal year budget and then deciding on a final budget for 2017-2018.
Like balancing your checkbook, balancing the county’s 2016-2017 fiscal year budget can’t happen until all the checks have been cashed and all the revenue and expenditures have been accounted for.
Deciding on a final county budget for 2017-2018 won’t happen until Sept. 19 at the earliest.
Susan Scarlett, longtime budget consultant for the county, started the board of supervisors off down the long road to deciding on the county’s 2017-2018 budget at the board’s meeting May 16.
The budget year for the county runs from July 1 to June 30 of each year.
However, the county doesn’t know how much money it has to spend for sure until the end of August and won’t have a final budget for 1 1/2 months into the new fiscal year.
Therefore, the county adopts a “preliminary budget” to guide county spending until a final budget can be adopted. The preliminary budget is sometimes referred to as the “recommended budget.”
The preliminary budget is pretty much the previous fiscal year’s budget, updated with whatever information is known for the coming fiscal year.
This updated information can include such things as wage and salary schedules and increases in insurance costs.
The county is hoping to have its preliminary budget ready by June 13, two weeks before the end of the current fiscal year.
The county will continue adding information it receives about county revenue and expenditures for the current fiscal year until the end of August.
By state statute, counties are required to have a final budget by Oct. 2.
Hoping for a Sept. 19 final budget
Once the county has a better idea of what its finances are for the upcoming fiscal year, including any changes to state and federal funding, it can start looking at balancing its budget for 2017-2018.
This includes deciding what programs to cut and what programs to give additional money to.
Hashing out a final budget will require extra meetings for the board in September.
Scarlett recommended that the board try to adopt a final budget by Sept. 19. This would allow the board to avoid the need for an additional board meeting in September. It would also allow the county to move ahead earlier and more confidently with necessary county government spending.
In seeking to meet this self-imposed deadline, Scarlett jokingly warned the board,” I may be a bigger nag than I’ve been in the past, but I’m good at it.”
Three approaches to balancing the budget
Scarlett summarized the three approaches the board of supervisors has used in recent years to balance its budget.
At one extreme, the entire board of supervisors has gone through the budget, line-by-line, department-by-department, looking at every expenditure in excruciating detail.
At the other extreme, two supervisors; Roberta Allen, county auditor-controller; and Scarlett have met with department heads as a committee and then made their recommendations to the board.
In an in-between approach, department heads come before the board to present their budgets and answer questions after meeting with the board’s budget committee.
According to Allen, the board can ask certain department heads to come and answer questions about their budgets and department heads can ask permission to address the board concerning their budgets.
Scarlett recommended the board adopt the middle option because several supervisors are relatively new to the county budgeting process.
Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said, in her experience, she found the middle option to be “very beneficial for everybody.”
To CAO or not to CAO
Whether to have or not have a county administrative officer is a controversial issue.
The board decided that it would start the budgeting process with the salary for a CAO included in the budget.
Board Chair Lori Simpson quipped, “Because we are incompetent and need a CAO.”
To which Supervisor Sherrie Thrall also joked, “Then, when we find we are short that amount of money, it will be given the axe.”
Funding sources vary
The county general fund is the primary focus of the county’s budget deliberations. The general fund pays for the services the county is required to provide its citizens. Other services are paid for by grants funneled through federal or state agencies.
Some departments are more dependent on the county general fund than others.
The offices of the sheriff, district attorney, county counsel, tax collector and auditor-controller are paid for almost entirely through the county’s general fund.
Whereas, county road services, social services, mental health services and public health agency services, are funded primarily by federal or state money.
2016-2017 spending to date
The lion’s share of the money for the general fund comes from property taxes, state motor vehicle fees, county sales tax, county lodging tax and a half- cent county sales tax to fund public safety, in that order.
As of May 13, the county had received 84 percent of its projected revenues for 2016-2017 and has spent 82 percent of its $33 million in projected net expenditures for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
Plumas County government employs approximately 300 people, with the county’s many independent special districts employing another approximately 200 people.
Due dates for fiscal year 2017-2018 county budget:
May 21 – Department budgets due.
June 13 – Preliminary county budget expected to be adopted.
Aug. 1 – The fund balance for the 2016-2017 fiscal year should be known.
Aug. 15 – The amount of property taxes received during the 2016-2017 fiscal year should be known.
Aug. 30 – The last date for the county to add revenue and expenditures to the general fund for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
Sept. 19 – The hoped for adoption date for Plumas County’s final budget for fiscal year 2017-2018.
Oct. 2 – Final state-mandated adoption date for county budgets.