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August 07, 2012 10:02 am

County finalizes $24 million budget

Written by CJ Baker

The Park County Commission found some money to sock away in its $24.16 million budget for the coming fiscal year, but it remains to be seen whether looming costs will mess that plan up.

“(Budgets) are not easy,” said Commission Chairman Tim French at the outset of a July 17 public hearing on the document. “They’re always tough when deciding how to spend $24 million.”

Park County Clerk Jerri Torczon said the finished product represents three months of work and, given all the paperwork involved, “several trees.”

As always, the largest component of the budget is providing for the county’s manpower. Wages and benefits for the county’s roughly 200 employees — from the assessor’s office to the jail — total about $12 million. No new positions have been added.

Unlike the cities of Powell and Cody, which froze wages, county employees are getting a 4 percent raise this year to account for increases in the local cost of living. Park County’s elected officials will receive a roughly 2 percent raise, based on a pay scale commissioners approved in 2010.

County commissioners also hope to be able to tuck some more money into reserves, thanks to rosier-than-expected revenues over the past year. Higher-than-expected payments from the federal government and better-than-projected sales tax collections were the primary reasons.

All told, the county ended up with $272,039 more in revenue than they expected, and commissioners — prompted by Commissioner Loren Grosskopf — opted to put that sum into reserves. Assuming all goes according to plan, the county will end the fiscal year next July with about $12.83 million in the bank.

As usual, the county’s biggest source of expected revenue in the coming year is property taxes. The county expects about $10.79 million from its 12 mills of property taxes, with about 60 percent of that coming from oil and gas production. Another $4.39 million is projected to come from sales, use and gasoline taxes.

Budgets for the various county departments range from $86,806 for the county coroner to $5.4 million for road and bridge.

Planned road projects in coming year include a first phase of replacing the 6BU bridge (the very last county bridge on the North Fork before reaching the Shoshone National Forest boundary) and a little bit of work on Hunter Creek Road, Road 6RT and Jim Mountain Road, said County Engineer Greg Meinecke. County leaders also decided to chip seal an additional 10 miles of gravel roads each year.

“We’re hoping that raises the level of service around the county, and we’re trying to get away from some of these dust issues we have, too,” Meinecke said.

Some of the bigger capital projects included in the budget are burying and upgrading power lines at the fairgrounds ($480,000), installing a new boiler and temperature controls in the Park County Courthouse ($270,000) and putting in concrete at the employee parking lot at the courthouse ($120,000).

County funding to outside entities — which range from the Powell Senior Citizens Center to Meeteetse recycling efforts to Forward Cody to Crisis Intervention Services to the Yellowstone Regional Airport — totaled $481,342. Almost all the entities received the same amount of money they did last year.

Commissioners left $189,000 unallocated to deal with a couple of big costs looming between now and next July: a possible capital murder trial and payments the county owes to the Powell and Cody hospitals for indigents committed against their will for mental health treatment.

It’s possible those bills could well exceed the $189,000 figure.

For the involuntary commitments of mental health patients, Powell Valley Healthcare alone has said it is seeking $275,000 from the county to cover bills dating back to 2002; West Park Hospital officials have declined to publicly state what sum they are seeking.

Meanwhile, commissioners opted not to earmark money for Myron J. Friday’s trial on a count of first-degree murder. The case is currently set to be tried in May 2013.

The sheriff’s, clerk of district court’s, district court judge’s and county attorney’s offices requested a combined $178,000 for the trial, in which Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric has said he’ll seek the death penalty. Friday is alleged to have brutally murdered his wife, 44-year-old Julie Friday. He pleaded not guilty to the charge.

A trial has been estimated to last as long as five weeks. The $178,000 requested ranged from potential overtime pay for sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors to security to accommodations and food for jurors.

Commissioners nixed the request, citing the unknown actual cost. The case could even get plea bargained between now and the trial date, noted Commissioner Joe Tilden, so why would the county budget for it until they have to? He cited concern about tying up money that could be spent elsewhere.

Commissioners said if the costs of the trial or the hospital bills exceed $189,000, they’ll pull the money from reserves.

Commissioners also set the the landfill department’s budget, though it is not a part of the county’s general budget. The landfills are operated instead as a separate enterprise account, generally paying for itself with tipping fees and other revenue. The landfill budget is rising from $2.33 million last year to $3.86 million this year. That’s almost entirely because of the $1.64 million cost of shutting down parts of the Powell, Clark and Meeteetse landfills in the coming year.

Commissioners additionally set the budgets for the four boards they control:

• $1.79 million for the Park County Library Board (which funds the Cody, Powell and Meeteetse libraries)

• $553,736 for the Park County Fair Board (which runs the Park County Fair and the fairgrounds year-round)

• $215,010 for the Park County Museum Board (which runs the Homestead Museum and the Park County Archives)

• $200,000 for the Park County Parks and Recreation Board (which gives funding to various recreational organizations and events)

Of the $2.75 million total budgeted for the boards, about $2.02 million is coming out of the county’s 12 mills of property taxes.

Commissioners have concerns about how coming years’ budgets will shape up.

U.S. government payments to the county as compensation for non-taxed federal lands account for about 7 percent of the county’s budget (roughly $2.26 million last year), and commissioners worry that money may be going away.

On top of that, the state — which provides another 7 percent of the county’s budget — may be giving out less money to local governments in the years ahead. Commissioners noted that an amendment to a recent federal transportation bill ripped away $700 million Abandoned Mine Land funds that had been promised to Wyoming in coming years, something they said in their budget message “will certainly be a challenge in future budgeting.”

Wyoming’s Congressional delegation and others are trying to get that money back.

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