Department heads will have more spending flexibility
By Marcy Stamper
As the Okanogan County commissioners and department heads try to shave $2 million from an already tight 2018 budget, they’re using an approach that will give the department leaders more flexibility in managing their money in the coming year.
When the budget process started this summer, commissioners gave each department head a target for that department’s percentage of the total county budget. Those targets are based on the average of what departments actually spent in 2015 and 2016 — as opposed to the full allocation for that department, said Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover.
Although one or two departments came close to the target, many managers said the goals wouldn’t even cover salaries, let alone operating expenses. Even for those who came close, it may not be feasible to make such substantial cuts, said Hover.
The commissioners notified department heads of the new approach in a memo, which explained, “Each Department will have the opportunity to discuss their needs beyond the ‘Target’ number … Keep in mind it is a place to start.”
In recent years, the county’s budget has ranged from $20.5 million to $21.5 million, according to Cari Hall, the county’s finance manager. This year, based on anticipated revenues, they’re aiming for $19.5 million.
If the commissioners and managers can cut enough to meet that goal, they hope that with unspent funds at the end of this year, they’ll have enough for an emergency-reserve fund, said Hall. The county hasn’t had a reserve recently, although it is unlikely they will be able to set aside the recommended 10 percent of the total annual budget, she said.
Overall county revenue has been “fairly stagnant” this year, with boosts from government payments for nontaxable land and from the timber excise tax. But there was also a double-digit increase in employee premiums for health care. As a result, expenses have outpaced revenue, said Hover.
The commissioners have elected to return to the bottom-line budget approach, where department heads will have some leeway for shifting money among accounts once the budget has been adopted, said Hover.
Last year’s budget was adopted at the line-item level, meaning that commissioners and department heads went over every single item to balance the budget, said Hover. Under that approach, if the managers had unexpected expenses or income during the year, it necessitated a request to the commissioners to make the change, a hearing, and a resolution to transfer the funds, said Hover.
“Some years, there were hundreds of resolutions for the movement of funds. It was really time-consuming. There are better ways for checks and balances,” he said.
With a bottom-line budget, if a department has enough paper but needs to buy pencils, the managers can make that decision on their own. “I did not feel that the commissioners should have the responsibility of cutting each line item,” said Hover.
Nevertheless, now that department heads have submitted preliminary requests, they’re going over individual line items with the commissioners, said Hall.
Across-the-board cuts don’t make sense, since they have a disproportionate impact on small departments, said Hall. While the Sheriff’s Department could conceivably absorb a 10-percent reduction, for a small department like the County Auditor, a cut like that could eliminate a person’s job, she said.
There have been no discussions about layoffs or specific ways to trim the budget, said Hall.
The county is still in union negotiations over salaries. Because the county is no longer contracting with an outside attorney for the negotiations (Hover and the county’s risk manager are now representing the county), county government is saving between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, said Hover.
The commissioners plan to hold their first budget hearing in mid-November after they know if voters have approved a 1/10 of 1 percent sales-tax increase for the county’s juvenile-detention facility. The additional tax revenue would offset maintenance and operations costs for the facility, said Hover.
If voters approve the tax increase, the plan is to put 40 to 50 percent in a fund for major infrastructure projects at the facility. The rest would go toward more immediate needs and repairs, said Hover.
A copy of the draft budget is available by calling (509) 422-7105 or emailing Laleña Johns at email@example.com. People can provide comments on the budget to Johns.