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Departments pitch new expenses to commissioners

A wish list is just that, something to hope for.

However, with a tight year financially in Clallam County, those elected to run the show might not grant many of their department heads' wishes for 2009.

The Clallam County commissioners have been taking testimony for the past two weeks from each department head on what the office does, what it needs and how it will do business in 2009.

Clallam County administrator Jim Jones will present a recommended budget to the commissioners at a Nov. 17 public meeting. It is likely to include several items from the wish list and the information and estimates for revenue and expenses laid out in the preliminary budget, which is available in the commissioners' office and online at www.clallam.net.

Also included in the budget is the county's transportation improvement plan. The public works staff proposes a list of projects to the commissioners each year. The improvement plan covers what staff hopes to get done in the next year as well as what could be done over the next six years.

Commissioners took the budget and the improvement plan around the county in early October for public comment.

The more finalized budget and transportation plan will be vetted again by the public and the county commissioners before final adoption, which is expected to happen Dec. 9.

Meetings will be held at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 2 in the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles, for the board and the public to review the documents.

Revenues are down and expenses are on the rise in Clallam County.

Jones found more than $310,000 in possible cuts in the budget but that isn't enough to prevent a dip into reserves to maintain current services.

But, as Jones pointed out, not many counties have the ability to maintain services in the face of an economic downturn.

In light of about $2 million in reserves being used to maintain the current government, the commissioners may keep their tradition of saying "no" to many funding requests on the wish list. However, there definitely will be a few that get approved because not approving them could be more costly in the long run.

Jones has recommended about $1 million in new spending, but indicated it was up to the commissioners to decide if those expenses were needed. Some of the new spending would come from state funds, while others would be from county coffers.

Big-ticket items include cost-of-living increases for employees, workers' compensation, a fingerprint scanner for juvenile services, equipment for sheriff's office vehicles and information technology upgrades.

Many are one-time purchases, such as equipment, while others will be ongoing, such as employee cost-of-living increases.

"While I have been here, commissioners have typically said 'no' to most (additional budget requests)," Jones said. "It may sound boring, but the commissioners review each new expense, be that for a new employee or for a cost increase as small as a new scanner. Some may see the smaller expenses as a waste of commissioner time, but they have made it a part of their job to make sure spending doesn't rise suddenly, which is something a lot of county leaders don't do but probably should."



The future

The general fund reserves, which are a prime indicator for a government's fiscal health, are projected to drop from $11.5 million at Jan. 1, 2009, to $9.88 million by the end the year.

Jones said the county can sustain two years of dipping into reserves at the current rate of decreasing revenue and increasing expenses. He estimates holding the line for a third year could be possible, adding that the general fund reserve should not dip below $5.5 million.

But if the economy does not turn around by that time, the commissioners will face very difficult decisions.

The commissioners' trend of saying "no" to budget requests during the building boom of two to five years ago is what gave them the reserves to sustain services and employees through these difficult times, according to Jones.

The county expects no layoffs in 2009 and no significant cuts in services. The roads will have the same level of maintenance and other departments will continue to serve in relatively the same capacity.

Jones said he thinks there is hope that services will not be cut after two years of using reserves. He said Clallam County could begin to see an economic upswing within two years due to large, slated infrastructure projects in the region, such as the Elwha Dam removal.

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