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County budget in the black

As local governments scramble for funding and begin pulling money from reserves to balance their budgets, Park County plans to sock away nearly $1 million.

The Park County Commission tentatively approved a $22.9 million budget at its Tuesday meeting, with an additional $921,600 slated to go into reserves.

“We're looking good going forward,” said Park County Commission Chairman Jill Shockley Siggins.

“The main thing is we asked all our departments to have a flat budget, and they did,” said Commissioner Bucky Hall.

The budget is for the 2011 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 of this year to June 30, 2011. It may change prior to Monday night's public hearing and its finalization on Tuesday as county officials continue to comb over revenues and expenditures.

The budget certainly changed from its initial presentation last month, which had the county pulling $2.5 million from reserves, rather than supplementing its coffers. But over a series of work sessions, commissioners trimmed line items and received better news about the money available.

The cuts the commission made to the budget are not expected to have a noticeable impact on county services; for example, at the suggestion of County Engineer Dave Kieper, a $220,000 loader he had requested was cut from the Road and Bridge budget, a proposed zero-radius grass mower purchase was pulled from the Buildings and Grounds Department ($22,000 savings) and at the offering of Park County Sheriff Scott Steward, the sheriff's department will go with six new patrol cars instead of seven (a savings of $25,500).

Other changes that benefitted the budget's bottom line involved making more optimistic revenue projections — such as by figuring that sales tax revenue will drop by only $80,000 in the coming year rather than by $300,000 and betting that the federal government will come through with an additional $320,000 of Payment In Lieu of Taxes before the fiscal year's end next summer.

Commissioners also scoured over each line item, comparing requested amounts to historical spending to see if it would be safe to budget less money. Those decreases weren't so much cuts to departments' budgets as adjustments to make the budget more accurate.

When there were concerns, commissioners spent significant time discussing even smaller requests. For example, they debated at length whether it was more appropriate to paint and side the caboose at Homesteader Museum for $6,000 as the county Museum Board had requested, or simply re-paint it at a cost of $3,500. (Ultimately, on a split vote, commissioners opted to approve $4,800 with the suggestion to side, but not re-paint, the caboose this year.)

By the end of budget discussions last week, the $2.5 million deficit had dropped to roughly $778,000.

“We work another two or three days, we'll have that down to zero,” said Commissioner Bill Brewer, half-joking.

But on Tuesday, commissioners learned that in all seriousness, the total was better than zero, with the budget $921,596 to the good. That shift was largely due to a better-than-expected cash carry-over from the 2009-10 budget year, which ended June 30.

The county's operational budget was set at $27.6 million last year, but ended up spending only $22.2 million. The county also put more than $6.8 million in reserves last year.

Though the county plans to put money into reserves again this year, Commissioner Tim French cautioned that some of the revenues, such as increased federal Payment In Lieu of Taxes, are only temporary.

“In a couple years we're looking at a million, million and a half (dollars) there, it's going to be gone,” said French.

This year's budget is being boosted by other one-time revenues, such as $427,000 in overages from the $2.2 million sales tax that helped fund the construction of the new Cody library. Additionally, the county has budgeted receiving $500,000 from the sale of the old library building, which commissioners said they plan to aggressively try to sell through real estate listings. An attempt to auction the building last year, appraised in 2008 at $1 million, was unsuccessful.

“We had an appraisal that was too large,” said Siggins.

Commissioners opted to freeze county employees' wages in the 2010-2011 Fiscal Year, though the county will increase its payments into employees' health insurance and retirement plans.

Earlier this year, commissioners voted to freeze elected officials' pay until January 2012. In 2012 through 2014, elected officials' salaries will increase by roughly 2 percent a year.

“I think next year we'll be able to address employees,” said Commissioner Hall. Employees received a roughly 3 percent wage increase last year.

About a half-dozen employees did have their wages increased in April after an independent study of county wages found that they were “grossly underpaid,” said French.

In that same action, commissioners also implemented recommendations from the study that the county lower its wages for a number of entry-level positions. The lower wages will not apply to current employees, but will take effect as new workers are hired.

A hearing on the $22.9 million budget is 7 p.m. Monday in the commissioner's meeting room in the Park County Courthouse.

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