Commissioners balance budget

by DERRICK PERKINS
Editor | September 8, 2020 7:00 AM

It came down to the wire, but the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners approved a balanced budget for fiscal year 2021 on Sept. 2.

At the start of last week, county officials were faced with trimming roughly 16.4 mills from the operating budget. County Administrator Patrick McFadden, who oversaw the budget process, said this week that departmental cuts and a late influx of federal dollars combined to eliminate the shortfall.

Officials pared back about $200,000 in proposed spending on the departmental level, he said. The county also benefited from an eleventh-hour influx of $472,606 from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) joined McFadden in praising department heads for limiting spending this budget cycle, even after absorbing a cost of living pay raise for public employees earlier in the summer as well as an increase in liability insurance.

“They really did some really good work on getting this budget done,” he said. “Obviously, our goal is to put less of a burden on the taxpayers. I think everybody stepped up and got that done.”

Of the county’s top five departments and agencies — in terms of requested appropriations — four saw cuts. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office appropriation fell to about $4.5 million, down $33,897 from its original request. Officials cut airport spending down to $310,095, a $24,700 reduction. The district court appropriation fell by $5,500 to $316,689 in the coming budget cycle. The county library system saw a $2,200 reduction, bringing spending down to $404,792.

Spending on the county’s ambulance services held steady at $209,359.

“I think we arrived at our goal. That’s a great thing,” said County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2). “It’s never easy having to say you can’t have what you want. It’s just life. I’d rather say yes than no.”

For the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, that meant shelving several capital improvement projects. Sheriff Darren Short and Undersheriff Brad Dodson participated in several rounds of budget talks with county commissioners in the lead up to the approval. Throughout, the pair maintained that nearly all the proposed spending was necessary.

Heading into the final hours of negotiations, commissioners offered to pay for future training through payment in lieu of taxes funds on a case-by-case basis. The board also instructed Short and Dodson to create a priority list of capital projects, to better facilitate the use of PILT dollars in the coming year.

“We will backfill if necessary,” Peck said. “And that’s true of everything. Obviously, if folks get into unforeseen circumstances, we’re going to pay the bills.”

The board dipped into PILT funds during the previous fiscal year, sending more than half a million dollars to the sheriff’s office for needed dispatch and records system upgrades.

While other counties allocate PILT dollars to particular expenses ahead of time, local officials usually hang on to the money for emergencies. The annual influx changes — occasionally drastically — from year to year, making it difficult to

While pleased with the outcome, commissioners repeated criticisms of Helena for waiting until after the start of the new fiscal year to release revenue figures. By that time, the board usually has voted on pay increases for public employees and elected officials.

“It’s just not a good way to run a railroad,” Peck said.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) made the motion to approve the budget with Bennett seconding it. The board approved the fiscal roadmap unanimously. The document even forecasts a 24-cent surplus by the fiscal year’s end.

“Forevermore, we can say that in 2020 we had a budget surplus,” joked McFadden.

But the methods used to build a balanced budget left commissioners worried about the years ahead. Future funding through programs like the federal Secure Rural Schools program remains in flux.

And officials relied heavily on federal coronavirus response dollars to balance the budget, funding that may be a one-off.

“We’re having continuing conversations,” Bennett said of future fiscal worries. “You can only draw out so much blood at one time and keep the body alive.”

During the crunch to alleviate an estimated $670,000 shortfall just a few weeks ago, commissioners proposed meeting with department heads on a more regular basis to discuss finances. Heads of larger departments could meet with commissioners each month while smaller departments might check in quarterly.

But that won’t fix a dearth of funding. Peck pointed to the road fund as an example. If outside dollars for that $3.7 million budget item disappeared, it would leave officials with just $20,000 to fund the rest of the county government.

“That’s the obvious concern, we had it this year and we may not have it next year,” Peck said. “That’s the world we live in.”