County relying on reserves to balance budget

Employee pay to remain flat

Posted 7/2/19

Park County commissioners have balanced the county’s budget for the coming fiscal year — but only by taking $1.3 million out of savings and delaying road maintenance.

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County relying on reserves to balance budget

Employee pay to remain flat


Park County commissioners have balanced the county’s budget for the coming fiscal year — but only by taking $1.3 million out of savings and delaying road maintenance.

“This is not sustainable stuff,” Commission Chairman Jake Fulkerson said as the board honed its proposed budget last week, adding that commissioners “are going to have to make some hard decisions in the next 12 months.”

Commissioners indicated that, over the coming year, they plan to study how to cut a couple million dollars worth of spending.

“I think everything’s on the table. Everything,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden, adding, “Barring any windfalls out there that we’re not aware of … right now, we’re looking at, every year, somewhere in the neighborhood of a $2 to $2.5 million shortfall.”

As currently drafted, the budget for the fiscal year — which began Monday and runs through June 30, 2020 — authorizes $27.97 million worth of spending. That’s up from the $27.86 million that commissioners approved for the past year.

The dollars cover a wide range of government services, ranging from the sheriff’s office to the Park County Fair to the landfill system.


Big ticket items

The increase can be attributed to a handful of large projects — including a new facility where the Park County coroner can examine and store bodies. Coroner Tim Power had long worked out of Ballard Funeral Home in Cody, but the business no longer has space. Power temporarily relocated to a garage bay at the Park County Law Enforcement Center. For the long term, however, commissioners are setting aside $465,000 to construct a new building near the center.

“It’s something we’re going to have to have,” Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said at a recent meeting.

Another “big ticket” item for the coming year is a $100,000 appropriation to have an outside consultant draft a new land use plan; the plan generally outlines what kinds of development can happen in which parts of the county.

“That’s something we don’t want to push down the road,” said Commissioner Dossie Overfield. She said it will take a long time to gather public input and put together a new plan — and noted that the county’s current document is already more than 20 years old.

Commissioners also budgeted $50,000 for a new natural resource management plan, funded by the State of Wyoming.

Meanwhile, the county is planning $1.7 million worth of significant road and bridge projects over the coming year. That includes replacing one bridge across the South Fork of the Shoshone River on Hunter Creek Road (Road YXD) and repairing another on Road 6JM while replacing another bridge that crosses the Wood River outside of Meeteetse. Additionally, the county is setting aside funding to look at how it might improve the roads that run through the Willwood area between U.S. Highway 14-A and Wyo. 295, southwest of Powell.

To make ends meet, commissioners opted to delay the county’s routine chip, crack and fog sealing operations for a year while holding off on purchasing some pieces of road and bridge equipment. Those and other cuts from the department represented about $970,000 of the roughly $1.1 million that commissioners trimmed from the budget last week.

With the investments the county has made in the recent past, Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said its roads and bridges are generally in good shape.

“We can definitely take a hit this year,” Edwards said of delaying the road maintenance and equipment purchases, but “it’s just something that it can’t be year-in and year-out, or things will start to suffer.”

Commissioner Fulkerson said the county is quickly approaching the point where it will have to ask voters for an additional sales tax when it undertakes larger projects.

“That’s just a reality check,” he said.


Employee compensation

County employees received raises of 5 percent or more last year, but their pay will stay flat in 2019-20.

“I feel very badly that we’re not able to do something additional for our employees, I mean I really do, but we just can’t,” Tilden said, noting the tight budget.

The only workers who will receive raises are the county assessor, attorney, clerk, clerk of district court, sheriff, treasurer and their first deputies; those raises were part of a four-year pay plan approved last year that can’t be changed.

Going forward, commissioners said they may reinstitute a “hiring freeze,” which could require each elected official and department head to make their case to commissioners before filling any vacant positions.

Over the past budget year, commissioners agreed to add three full-time and one part-time positions while eliminating one full-time job. The county added a dispatcher at the Park County Sheriff’s Office, another IT assistant, and both an assistant planner and a part-time small wastewater administrator in the Planning and Zoning Department. Commissioners also eliminated the events coordinator position — which had overseen the annual county fair — by having the duties absorbed by other employees.

Although commissioners won’t be raising wages, they are pouring more money into employees’ benefits. Costs associated with the county’s self-funded health insurance plan rose last year and as a result, commissioners are setting aside roughly $2.9 million in the coming year. That’s a roughly $282,000, or 10.7 percent, increase. County officials have been discussing possible ways to lower costs.


A mix of good and bad

Of course, not all of the news from the last budget year was bad. For example, commissioners set aside $250,000 to repair Squaw Creek Road (Road XUX) following a mudslide last year, but the work cost only a little more than half of that.

The county also collected significantly more sales and use taxes and auto fees than expected (getting an extra $336,828) while earning more than twice as much interest (a total of $229,241) on the cash it has saved up.

Further, Park County is set to collect $8.34 million in property taxes in the coming year — a more than 2 percent increase for what is the county’s largest source of revenue.

However, other factors hurt the bottom line for fiscal year 2018-19.

For one thing, commissioners overestimated how much money the federal government would provide. Relying on projections from the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, the county figured it would receive $3.24 million in Payment in Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools funding. However, the actual payments came in about $385,500 short — and the county expects to receive even less this year.

Commissioners also wound up approving extra expenses. For instance, three of the new positions weren’t in the original 2018-19 budget, nor was a $230,000 project to replace the surveillance cameras at the Park County Detention Center or a $10,000 contribution for the Park County Animal Shelter’s new building.

All told, $720,000 was left over from last year’s budget. That’s significantly less than the millions of dollars the county has traditionally carried over.

Fulkerson noted that the smaller cash carryover is also a result of the county budget becoming more accurate, with departments having less of a cushion for unexpected costs.

“We’ve done a really good job of making our budget more in-line with what actual expenses are,” he said.

The county currently has $16.3 million in its reserves and commissioners plan to draw out $1.3 million to balance the budget. Commissioners say that will leave enough money to theoretically cover six months of operations — a recommendation made by the county’s auditors — plus some flexibility for unexpected projects that arise.

The county budget will be formally presented at a public hearing on Monday, July 8. It begins at 6 p.m. at the Park County Courthouse in Cody. Commissioners will then finalize the budget on Tuesday, July 9.