Proposal calls for spending cuts, staff reductions and bump in tax collections

Benton County budget officials are proposing a 2013-15 spending plan that is both leaner and has more cash reserves than the current budget, but it will take some job cuts, belt-tightening and a bump in local option levy collections to get there.

The total proposed budget for the next two fiscal years is $185,012,850, down 2.2 percent, or about $4 million, from $189,093,585 in the current biennium. The general fund portion of the budget, where most of the county’s discretionary spending comes from, is a proposed $92,899,271, down 3.5 percent, or about $3.4 million, from $96,273,050 in 2011-13.

Those numbers are predicated on staff reductions of 11.67 full-time-equivalent positions, which would shrink the county work force from about 383 to 371 FTE. Some of those cuts would be achieved through attrition, but at least six jobs would be eliminated under the proposal while others would have their hours reduced.

The proposal would do away with a support staff position from the Board of Commissioners, one position from the Assessment Office, another from the Juvenile Department, one from the Health Department and two from the Sheriff’s Office, including an emergency services planner and the job of undersheriff.

The budget also includes beefed-up cash reserves. The contingency, bond reserve and unappropriated balance funds would total $22,265,322, up nearly $4.5 million, or 25 percent, from the current budget.

In part, that’s the result of a new budgeting approach that aims to reduce fund balances in department budgets and put that money into designated reserve funds.

County budget manager Pat Cochran formally presented the spending proposal Tuesday night to the Benton County Budget Committee, which consists of County Commissioners Annabelle Jaramillo, Linda Modrell and Jay Dixon plus three citizen members, Dave Dowrie, Phyllis Lee and Joseph Bailey.

“Basically it’s a status quo budget in a lot of ways,” Cochran told the committee, noting that apparent cost reductions in some areas were the result of “technical changes” in how the budget is presented.

The main thrust, he said, is to comply with the Board of Commissioners’ directive that the county operate with a budget that is not only technically balanced but that also funds current expenses with current revenues.

One example: The budget assumes no guaranteed federal timber payments for the coming biennium but a return to the old revenue-sharing formula, which would result in substantially lower revenues.

As a result, the budget assumes the county would end its practice of reducing the tax rate on the local option levy in proportion to federal timber payments. Instead of holding the rate at the current 76.13 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the proposal anticipates the commissioners would impose the full 90 cents per $1,000 approved last year by voters.

“Ninety percent of our discretionary revenue comes from property tax,” Cochran noted. “And a third of that discretionary income comes from the local option levy, so that’s a significant part of the budget.”

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Four more Budget Committee meetings are scheduled this month, culminating in a public hearing on April 16 (see box for full schedule). In mid-May, the committee will reconvene to vote on a final budget and property tax rate for the 2013-15 biennium. The Board of Commissioners will meet June 18 to confirm the decision.

There could be some fireworks at the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday at the Sunset Building, 4077 S.W. Research Way. Sheriff Diana Simpson is expected to make a case for restoring a $700,000 reduction in her department’s budget, and District Attorney John Haroldson is gearing up to argue for an additional 3.5 positions, including a special prosecutor who would focus on “proactive intervention” in mental health and juvenile cases where there might be an imminent threat to the public.

Meeting schedule

The Benton County Budget Committee will meet half a dozen times over the next six weeks to hammer out the county budget for 2013-15.

After discussions of individual department budgets, the committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget April 16. A final decision on the budget and tax rate is expected on May 13 or 14.

All meetings are open to the public and will be held at the Sunset Building, 4077 S.W. Research Way.

4 p.m. Thursday: Juvenile Department, District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office budgets

4 p.m. Tuesday: Library Service District budget (public hearing)

4:20 p.m. Tuesday: Board of Commissioners, Assessment, Finance and Budget, Records and Elections, Human Resources and Information Technology Department budgets

6 p.m. April 11: Fairgrounds, Community Development, Natural Areas & Parks, Public Works, Health Center and Health Department budgets

6 p.m. April 16: Public hearing on proposed budget

6 p.m. May 13: Deliberations and approval of budget and tax rate, if ready

3 p.m. May 14: Continue deliberations and approve budget and tax rate, if necessary

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.