County budget ‘flashing yellow’

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BRIAN WALKER/Press Undersheriff Dan Mattos discusses budget items to Kootenai County elected officials and commissioners on Wednesday at the county’s Administration Building. Human Resources Director Skye Reynolds is on the left.

COEUR d'ALENE — Kootenai County's clerk unloaded a pile of budget concerns he has to other elected officials and commissioners on Wednesday.

At the top of Jim Brannon's list was what he believes has been a lack of collaboration with his office on budget requests, resulting in alarming numbers early in the budget cycle.

Brannon said $2.2 million in new budget costs for fiscal year 2018, including $927,000 in personnel, have been committed but unspent — and the budget season is only beginning.

"Quite honestly, this has been weighing on me heavily," Brannon told the other officials with a direct, raised voice to open the meeting. "There has been a large influx of requests since the 2017 budget closed that I'm not aware of."

Brannon said the first he heard about the commissioners' intent to apply future funds toward a new camera system on the courthouse campus was through a story in The Press. That’s among another $3.8 million in pending decisions before the board.

Brannon said the budget requests have already created a quandary well before the heart of the budget season.

"We, in essence, have already spent our estimated revenue on new growth, plus a 3 percent tax increase," he said after the meeting.

"As the clerk, I've got to call attention to this. I'm trying to give them a flashing yellow light. They need to be aware of the decisions that have been made already and some that were made by the prior board. If I see something that doesn't get addressed, then that's on me. I'm not trying to be the bad guy. I'm just trying to be collaborative on where we are now. It is my duty to present a balanced budget to commissioners."

Brannon said his preference on the budget cycle is to work with the county departments on their needs, but his office has been left in the dark in many cases during the process.

"By law, I could compile the budget in a very limited time, but that would not be fair to them," he said.

Brannon said financial decisions require careful analysis and his office has the expertise to dive into the data before it reaches the commissioners' desks.

Commissioner Bob Bingham calmed the tone of the meeting by explaining the factors that have led to the budget blowup.

He said the hiring process for new deputies to staff the planned jail expansion needs to start now due to limited spots at the state's training academy and the need to have staff on board when it opens for safety reasons. Once the expansion opens, the county will save an estimated $1.2 million in annual costs to house inmates in facilities outside the area, he said. Those savings, he said, won't happen all at once.

Bingham said an unusual number of local murder cases over the past 18 months have required a lot of resources during the court processes.

"This is part of the trail that has led us here (with the budget)," said Bingham, adding there have also been some budget misunderstandings along the way and Brannon's concerns are well-taken.

But Commissioner Marc Eberlein said the board has simply been doing its job of deciding what should be included in the proposed budget and the trimming process will take place over the summer. The public hearing on the final budget is in September.

"(Brannon's) job is to present a balanced budget; our job is to decide what's in the budget," Eberlein said. "What are we apologizing for, Bob? Granted that there are a lot of moving parts, but that's something for the board to decide. You will find out shortly that this will be a tough budgeting year. Cash is tight and we could get bit later on."

Commissioner Chris Fillios said the county has had to raise the bar on some salaries for new hires to stay competitive with comparable jurisdictions and attract quality applicants, so that's another reason behind the rising budget.

"There's certain harsh realities confronting us and we have to address those," he said. "The previous board did a good job of containing expenses, but also if you contain them too long you're just kicking the can down the road."

County staff has started an in-house study comparing its pay scales to those of comparable jurisdictions for the commissioners to consider during the budget season.

Eberlein said he believes increased salaries need to be carefully monitored because the research he's done indicates those in the public sector make more than employees in the private sector.

"My opinion is that government serves the people, not vice-versa," he said.

Assessor Mike McDowell said this is the first time since he started working for the county in 1977, special circumstances excluded, that new hire budget requests have gone forward to the commissioners mid-year.

"That is not fair to you," McDowell told the commissioners. "You only see that specific need at that time. You don't have the ability to look at the broad scope countywide. There is a lot of budget demand beyond the normal need out there. I'm not sure that what you're looking at here won't push you into taking foregone [taxes] as well."

Foregone, a budgeting authority, is an accrual of money agencies could have received through tax increases in previous years but chose not to. When agencies take foregone, it's the equivalent of raising taxes.

Shaping the budget is always a work in progress as evidenced by Sheriff Ben Wolfinger's question to the board wondering why he's had to include facility utility costs in his department's budget when some other departments haven't. He was pleased to learn that will now be changed so all departments will be treated equally on not including utility costs in their budgets.

Brannon also stressed the need to be transparent, properly notice meetings and be cognizant of open meeting laws so the county doesn't open itself to lawsuits. He said a citizen activist recently complained of a meeting not being properly noticed.

"Stay on course," Brannon said, adding there can be perceptions of improperly meeting behind closed doors.

Eberlein said there are times when discussing administrative functions is necessary and allowed.

"The intention is not to be meeting behind closed doors," he said.

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