Sequim residents quizzed Clallam County officials Oct. 9 on their budgeting for 2009, emphasizing topics of health, transportation projects and the safety of the county's money in the current national economic crisis.
Former Clallam County Planning Commissioner Bob Lynette opened the discussion by asking how the county would fare financially in 2009.
"I came here tonight to find out if the county is in trouble," Lynette said, sitting in the Guy Cole Convention Center during the county's budget road show, which also included an update of the Public Works department's six-year transportation plan.
Clallam County Commissioner Mike Chapman, I-Port Angeles, was quick in his response.
"We are one of three counties without debt. We will not be making layoffs, while at the same time reducing how many employees we pay through attrition," he said.
"Plus, we have reserves that we saved during the building boom that we can use to cushion county operations for at least two tough economic years."
Lynette followed up by asking if the reserves were safe from the current devaluation of most investments across the nation.
Chapman and Clallam County administrator Jim Jones said they reviewed any potential impacts to the county's reserves and found little to be concerned about.
"The reserves are in a cash or cash-like standing so they are not being affected by the decline in the market," Chapman said. "Plus we are still getting a percentage back each year on those reserves that serves as supplemental income."
The county is changing very little in the budget from 2008 to 2009. Jones did comb through each department's
budget line by line to find where cuts could be made and sliced about $311,000 of spending.
The county will, however, end up spending about $2.25 million more than it takes in 2009, which will be cushioned by reserves in order to not cut services. Jones estimates the county will be able to survive comfortably for two years on reserves. At that point, the county will need to either start increasing revenues or begin to look into making tough decisions.
The preliminary budget shows the general fund paying out $31.94 million and receiving $30.05 million in revenue. The general fund reserve is estimated to be at $9.6 million at the end of 2009.
Jones said the county needs at least $5.5 million in the general fund to meet expenses.
He has high hopes for future infrastructure projects headed to the county, such as the Elwha River dam removal, that may keep services and the budget sound beyond the two-year comfort zone.
Audience member Ron Smith asked what the county was doing to accommodate for changes in the building industry, asking specifically about the larger staff needed to handle the building boom three years ago.
Jones went through employment records over the past few years, showing how the number of employees decreased in the building department and grew in the planning department.
"Some of the employees in building left and we will not fill those positions," Jones said. "Then we've moved others to long-range planning because of what we are dealing with in this whole (Growth Management Act) compliance situation."
Clallam County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, said the employees are cross-trained and would be able to transition back to the building department should the industry pick up again.
Last year, Congress reinstituted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which repays rural counties like Clallam for losses in timber revenue due to environmental regulations.
In 2009, the road department will receive about $775,000 from the act, which is 20 percent less than in 2008. The funds will continue to dwindle until they are gone.
"We will not be seeing an increase in county-funded maintenance, but we do hope to maintain the same level of road repair and upkeep," said county Public Works director Craig Jacobs. "We will see a decrease in county-funded improvement or construction projects but there are several federal and/or state funded projects that will go through."
The county has 18 projects listed as funded on its six-year transportation improvement plan, which can be reviewed and commented on during future budget hearings at the Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners. Dates are being determined.
For a copy of the 2009 preliminary budget, visit www.clallam.net and click on "Budget and Finance" or visit the Clallam County commissioners' office in the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles.
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