Park County commissioners took steps toward cutting back maintenance on lower-volume roads, slashing funding to local nonprofit organizations and raising liquor license fees. While working to close a …
Park County commissioners took steps toward cutting back maintenance on lower-volume roads, slashing funding to local nonprofit organizations and raising liquor license fees. While working to close a multi-million dollar budget deficit, they also batted around ideas like increasing landfill fees, trimming employee benefits and turning custodial and groundskeeping work over to private companies (see related story).
The Tuesday, Jan. 7 worksession built off the work of a county committee, which spent months brainstorming possible ways to bring in more money and spend less.
“Like it or not, I think the only cure to this is going to be increased revenue or drastic cuts … and it may be drastic cuts before the public buys into the increased revenue,” said Commissioner Lloyd Thiel.
The biggest budget booster that commissioners agreed upon last week was unexciting and essentially involves shifting money from one area to another. The county intends to free up $500,000 a year in its primary, general fund by using the County Road Fund (made up of state fuel taxes) to pay for some maintenance projects.
Commissioners indicated they may consider taking even more money from the road fund, but County Engineer Brian Edwards cautioned them to leave enough saved up for bigger projects. While there’s about $4 million in the account right now, it doesn’t take many big projects to spend it all; look at a list of all the projects planned for the future, “and it will scare the crap out of you,” Edwards said.
Commissioners also indicated that they want to cut back on the maintenance that the county performs on roads serving three or fewer landowners. Eventually, that could lead to a couple hundred thousand dollars of savings a year, Edwards has estimated.
“We can no longer afford to do that stuff anymore,” said Commissioner Jake Fulkerson, adding, “We’ve got to put our dollars where most of the people live.”
Edwards and his staff were tasked with coming up with a more specific plan. Part of that work will involve looking at access for emergency services and school bus routes and reviewing which subdivisions have maintenance contracts with the county.
Commissioners have said they may seek a 1 percent general purpose sales tax to help ease their budget woes, but that possibility didn’t come up last week.
Instead, commissioners talked about raising their liquor license fees — a retail license, for instance, would cost $1,500 a year instead of $600 — and beginning to charge utilities and other entities that do work within the county’s right-of-way. Edwards said Park County is one of “very few” that doesn’t charge for right-of-way permits.
“It’s going to be a little unpopular at first,” he said, “But the going rate is anywhere between $150 and $200 per permit.”
Other new or increased charges may be coming, too, as the county is preparing to review all of its fees.
Last week, commissioners discussed raising tipping fees at the county’s landfills — rates that were lowered from $78 to $74 per ton last year — or adding a new “scale fee” for each delivery. The extra dollars would be transferred from the landfill to the general fund.
However, Commissioner Dossie Overfield voiced concern about raising the prices mid-year. Commissioner Thiel, who led the charge to drop the tipping fees by $4 a ton last year, suggested that raising the rates again wouldn’t be a fair way to raise revenue; he specifically noted that City of Powell residents — whose trash is trucked to Billings — would not have to share in that cost.
“My thought is we’re going to raise a lot of stink, and I’d like to make some cuts that affect everyone across the county,” said Thiel. He was more open to Commissioner Lee Livingston’s idea of adding a scale fee of perhaps $5 per trip.
“Some people are going to scream,” Landfill Manager Tim Waddell warned. “Some people are going to be not quite happy about it.”
Waddell suggested the fee would basically be a rate increase.
“It’s a way of raising the rates without raising the rates,” said Livingston, adding, “It’s a perception thing.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner Overfield suggested that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to cut the Park County Parks and Recreation Board’s $180,000 budget by $10,000 or $20,000 amid the tight times.
That led into a debate about cutting back on the roughly $348,000 that the county provided to outside entities this year, a collection of groups that include senior centers, recycling operations, youth programs and subsidies for commercial flights in and out of the Cody airport. Thiel has been outspoken about specifically wanting to eliminate the $14,101 that the county provides for recycling programs.
Commissioners ultimately decided that they want to consider funding reductions on a case-by-case basis, planning to ask each group to pitch the commission at a later date.
“A lot of the organizations, they spend that money and they provide a vital service to the community,” Tilden said.
However, commissioners Fulkerson and Livingston indicated that they see the outside funding as a lower priority compared to the county’s own operations.
“We’ve got to make some very hard decisions,” Livingston said, “and I’m probably going to have a hard time funding some of these special requests if it means firing one of my employees.”
Other deficit-reducing items taken up by the commissioners were less controversial.
For instance, the Park County Library System is offering $80,000 in one-time savings through some financial maneuvering and another $600 a year may be saved from the judge’s budget by no longer offering lunches to jurors in District Court; Clerk of District Court Patra Lindenthal said no other counties are picking up the tab for jurors’ lunches.
As for other items that could be trimmed from her office, “I don’t know what else I can do,” Lindenthal said; outside of salaries and benefits for the office’s five employees, the Clerk of District Court’s budget includes just $9,750 worth of expenditures.
While commissioners reached a consensus on several budget changes during last week’s workshop, none will take effect until the commission takes formal action during an official meeting.