Three things to know about the County budget

By John Guevara 

[dropcap]Even[/dropcap] after the County Board’s budget vote on Thursday, slashing the Sheriff’s budget by $4.3 million (or 62 percent of the projected deficit), questions linger, tempers flare, and press conferences are called.

If you didn’t read a newspaper or watch the news last month, there has been controversy surrounding the cut to the Sheriff’s budget. Both supporters of the sheriff and supporters of the cuts became more and more entrenched that their respective stance was right.

Over the next two weeks, we’re going to look at three things you can take away from the county’s budget that wasn’t very clear if you weren’t at the County Board meeting last Thursday.

1. The budget included a deficit.

Wait. Hasn’t the Register Star told us multiple times that the county’s budget was balanced? Why would they do that if there was a deficit? Well, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, “the truths we cling to” often depend on our own point of view.

One of the ways governments can “balance their budget” is by spending out of “fund balances” when projected taxes and fees are not enough to cover projected expenses. A “fund balance” is the amount of money a government keeps available to cover its bills when taxes and fees are not coming in.

Tax revenue isn’t steady like a paycheck. Governments don’t receive revenue in equal increments every two weeks. It comes in fits and spurts through the year.

But expenses aren’t like that. Utilities are not willing to postpone collecting the October bill because the tax revenue will not be collected until December. So the government keeps a little extra on hand to make payroll and pay bills until the tax revenue comes in.

The goal is for the government to end up with as much fund balance at the end of the year as it had in the beginning. This is harder to do when using fund balance dollars to balance the budget. The budget that was laid over at the beginning of September included $500,000 from the host fee fund balance.

The host fee, also known as garbage dump tipping fee, has almost exclusively been used for economic development. But the county board did use a portion of the host fee to balance last year’s budget as well. The difference is that earlier this summer, the board passed a law saying host fees have to be spent on economic development.

The county added to the half-million dollar deficit when Dan Fellars introduced an amendment to take $200,000 out of the general fund balance and split it between the public defender and state’s attorney. That’s $700,000 in spending for which there is no tax revenue this year.

2. The process could have been better.

One of the challenges county governments have that cities don’t is that city councilmen have authority over department heads. County government is made up of multiple elected department heads. County board members don’t have authority over these department heads; they have authority with them.

In the past, some elected department heads have responded to questions about their budget with Ace Ventura-style bluntness. This year we saw the first lawsuit on the matter.

In an effort to avoid politicizing the budget process, the Finance Committee accepted the administration’s recommendation to have County CFO Carla Paschal review each department’s budget within each department and then report back to the committee.

A process intended to strip politics out resulted in an escalation of politics. Neither the board, nor the departments had much time to understand the reasons why specific cuts were made, or why a certain amount of money was necessary to keep the county safe.

Finance Chairman Ted Biondo was frustrated by the political grandstanding. Biondo is convinced that many of the bumps, bruises and scrapes of this past budget cycle can be chalked up, at least in part, to a new and inexperienced administration.

The process should have involved each department head and the administrative team plus a few members of the finance committee. Department heads should not be afraid to explain why they need something, how it will work, and why it is better than the alternatives.
The days of “because I said so” are over. Given enough time, the County could have come up with alternatives to steep personnel cuts from the beginning of the process, rather than have a few board members attempting a Hail Mary as the deadline to pass a budget loomed. R.

Next week, we will conclude with the third thing you should take away from the county budget process: Politics should stop at the street’s edge.

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