Friday, September 26, 2014

Living within our means, a summary of this year’s county budget

By Elizabeth Morgan

Between a myriad of Monday meetings on Sept. 22, I spoke with Clearwater County Commissioner Don Ebert concerning the 2014-2015 Fiscal Year’s budget.

I asked how this year’s budget compared to last year’s and if there had been any significant changes to report.

“We held the line on our budget, because as always we don’t know what our PILT or SRS funds are going to be. We were pretty conservative,” admitted Ebert. “There were no wage increases given this year to staff. There is no expansion. We don’t try to take on more than we can pay for, because we are pretty well where we need to be as far as what we can afford and live within our means.”

Ebert reported that the county has good fund balances and they want to keep it that way. “We cut back on our spending a long time ago, before we ran out of money so in that sense the budget is healthy.”

“There are a couple of things to consider when planning a budget based on projections,” Ebert said, “which in a lot of ways are just an educated guess. The main thing in my mind is how much is spent. Even though something is allotted for in the budget, doesn’t necessarily mean it must be spent.”

As in the process of setting most any budget, Clearwater County Commissioners put together the best estimate of what they believe the next year will hold as far as revenue and expenses. However, as in the case of funding from SRS and PILT, there’s really no way to do anything but give it their best guess.

I asked Ebert how severely the funds from SRS and PILT fluctuate from year to year. “The funds don’t fluctuate so much,” he responded, “the question is more about if congress will act and if we get them out or not.”

In the past, the county has received them every year. Some would say it’s a pretty safe bet that they will continue, but how far is the county willing to go out on that limb? “If you start talking about spending money that you don’t have yet, it’s kind of precarious.” said Ebert, “We’ve always opted towards the more conservative side and we have good fund balances because of that.”

Ebert shared that when there is an excess it is carried over to the following year’s budget. Auditors recommend sufficient money in the balance to run for three months or around 25% of the year’s budget, and in that case, there must be cash on hand to run the county.

As in other budgets, there are also the unexpected expenditures that come up occasionally, so the county budgets must consider budgeting more money than what is actually intended. The excess is always carried over. “It’s kind of hard to predict,” he said.

Winter weather plays into the ways the county’s unforeseen expenses. Depending on the amount of snow, time and resources to maintain the roads accessibility could consume a substantial portion of the budget. “I’m not sure if during the wintertime, the county could ever plow the roads often enough to keep everyone happy. But the roads are what they are and this is rugged terrain,” stated Ebert. “We do the best we can with what we have. Fortunately winter comes first and we have the rest of the year to adjust if needed.”

Ebert explained “You have to spend enough to keep the county functioning properly, but at the same time, we don’t want to spend it if it isn’t necessary. It’s a constant judgment call. We examine each item on a regular basis to make sure it is necessary. It’s a fine line and so far we’ve been pretty lucky. I feel we have provided adequate services and have done so within our means.”

“The county has enough to operate a couple of years to avoid running into a brick wall, should funding from SRS and PILT be cut,” assured Ebert, “but there would certainly be significant changes in the manner in which the county spends their money.”

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