Public Works gets full funding for road maintenance
By Marcy Stamper
A day before the close of the year, the Okanogan County commissioners adopted a $60 million budget for 2015.
The bottom line of $60 million includes $20.4 million for current operating expenses, about $500,000 more than last year. It also reflects dedicated accounts that cannot be intermingled with current expense, including $10.4 million in miscellaneous funds for expenses such as the noxious weed office and the law library; and $8.6 million collected by junior taxing districts such as fire and EMS. Money collected by junior taxing districts is set by property-tax levies and the commissioners have no say in how the funds are expended.
The Department of Public Works has another $20.6 million, also a separate fund. This year — for the first time in several years — the commissioners did not transfer any money from that fund to operating expense, according to Nita Weeks, chief financial officer for the county. County governments are permitted to transfer a certain percentage of Public Works funds for core services, but this year the commissioners wanted it available for road maintenance, she said.
This is the second year that all three commissioners — rather than just one — worked on the budget, going line by line to scrutinize expenses and compare them with previous years’, said Weeks. Although the process resulted only in savings of a few thousand dollars here and there, it added up, she said.
Many department heads also took the initiative to find ways to reduce their costs and submitted lower requests at the start of the budget process months ago, she said.
Overall, changes in the budget were incremental, said Weeks. The most recent increases and reductions in line items reflect more accurate projections of revenue for this year, and include grants recently obtained by some departments, said Weeks.
Even in departments that show significant changes from what the department heads had requested, adjustments were generally minor, with costs often shifted to a different category, said Weeks. For example, the commissioners moved expenses for vehicle purchases for the sheriff’s department and the new position of coroner to a category that includes expenses shared by all departments.
The sheriff’s department received a lower allocation for a number of reasons. Several officers retired and new ones are typically paid a lower salary. The department has also not yet replaced Dave Rodriguez, who resigned when he was elected county coroner, so the salary for his old position will not cover a full year, she said.
The commissioners authorized the purchase of three, rather than five, new vehicles for the sheriff’s department, but that is in part because they had already replaced several vehicles after extra-heavy use during the summer’s wildfire, said Weeks.
The county has a significant new expense to pay for a coroner, which was triggered when the county surpassed 40,000 in population. The coroner’s office has been allocated $113,000 — a big increase from last year’s budget of $48,000 for those duties, which were performed by staff from the prosecutor’s office. “It’s an unfunded mandate. These things greatly impact our budget,” said Weeks.
The commissioners are not taking a raise, which would be about $6,000 for each, but other departments did get scheduled increases, according to Laleña Johns, clerk of the board. They are close to finalizing contracts with several unions after negotiations that have taken all year, she said.