County attorney costs drive county budget

Originally published in the 6/23/17 newspaper print edition of Yellowstone County News

BILLINGS — Of all the budgeting problems faced by Yellowstone County, planning for the future of the County Attorney’s department is of great concern to Kevan Bryan, county finance director. The reallocation of other funds to supplement the County Attorney’s office is not a sustainable approach over the long term, Bryan told Yellowstone County Commissioners during budget hearings this week.

The most direct approach to deal with the problem would be to get voter approval to increase the public safety mill levy by 5-7 percent, suggested Bryan. Already drawing upon its reserves, as well as being supplemented from the general budget, the County Attorney’s department will run out of reserves by the end of FY 2023, said Bryan.

Budget hearings are being held every day this week, during which time, commissioners meet with department heads to review their needs for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1. Final budget hearings will be held after the state submits its valuations to the county in late August or early September.

Bryan began the hearing, explaining the situation posed by the ever-increasing demands on the county attorney’s office. “Our county attorney’s office faces significant increases in demand every year. The mill levy passed to fund this office over 15 years ago now provides less than 30 percent of the resources needed to cover the costs. The county has continued to draw subsidies from our General Fund to keep the Public Safety-Attorney Fund from distress,” he said. The FY 2017-18 budget transfers $2.4 million to the county attorney’s office.

Resources from other areas of the budget add another $450,000 “to slow the erosion in reserves in the County Attorney’s fund.”

“Longer–term, this cannot continue.”

Bryan further emphasized the stress the budget is under from the public safety/ judicial component of the budget, saying, from the budget of FY13 until now, “this category of spending has increased 34.6 percent … A compounded rate exceeding 6.1 percent per year.” During the same period, all other government expenditures (excluding capital expenditures) grew 14 percent, or an average of 2.7 percent compounded per year. Property taxes grew about 2.95 percent.

The new year’s county budget assumes a 1.5 percent growth in tax revenues.

Last year total revenues were projected at $88.8 million. This year the projection is $102 million, but that includes $9.7 million borrowed to build the jail addition. Expenditures in 2018 will show expenditures of $16.5 million for the jail expansion and remodeling.

Revenue projections for 2017-18 include .59 percent from a levy increase allowed the county to compensate for half the rate of inflation.

“That may be too low of a growth estimate,” said Bryan, “I certainly hope that it is. But in the past seven years, our growth has been less than this estimate twice.”

Bryan expressed dismay about the failure of legislation that would have allowed counties the opportunity to increase mill levies enough to cover the full cost of inflation, rather than just half the cost of inflation.

“To keep the ongoing costs of existing structure at half of the rate of inflation for a decade or so is almost impossible,” said Bryan. The only reason it has appeared to work is because inflation has been quite low, he said.

But, as a community grows, the demands for public services increase, and the county would be in a better position if it were allowed to increase levies for the full cost of inflation. Over the past six years, the cost to taxpayers would be less than $2 on a $100,000 taxable home value, annually, to have kept full pace with inflation, while it would have generated $1.9 million to the county’s general fund, and the County Attorney’s fund would be up by $238,000.

The overall estimate for tax revenues before protests for FY18 is about $46.72 million. The current levy for the Big Sky Economic Development Authority (2.95 mills) generates an additional $1,030,444 before protests. The maximum available mill levy for BSEDA in FY18 is estimated to be about $1,125,125 (3.22 mills). BSEDA will also get about $217,000 from the entitlement distribution from the State of Montana.

Budgets have been adjusted to compensate for what is expected to be a 4.65 percent reduction in available tax revenues because of protested taxes. The good news is that that is less than the 6.05 percent estimate held back last year.

“The challenge lies in the fact that over 98 percent of the over $2 million, this county won’t receive, is from three entities — without a good estimate when resolution might be forthcoming,” Bryan said.

The entities are two refineries and a pipe company.

“The longer this resolution takes, the larger the potential shift of taxes to all other taxpayers in the county” said Bryan.

Steps last year to tighten up on unnecessary budget authority “held this year,” said Bryan, and departments were asked this year to look for additional places to cut.

County department heads are requesting a total of 10.75 new positions, while one department is vacating one position.

The budget will show a decrease in the reserves for the Sheriff’s Department and for the General Fund, as was expected, as money is withdrawn to finance the building of the new addition to the jail.

The county is “well into the construction of the voter-approved expansion and remodeling” of the detention facility, with completion slated for the end of spring 2018. MetraPark is also constructing a new shop building. Both projects are funded. The county is near the completion of work needed for the sheriff’s new headquarters building, with occupancy slated for early FY 18.

Future county budgeting faces “significant uncertainty” as it provides space for two new district court judges, which were approved by the 2017 State Legislature. Both positions will be filled in the 2018 election, and the space needs to be available by then.

The county will also be seriously contemplating refurbishing the sheriff’s “soon to be vacated” building, and as they search for more space for other departments that will be displaced for the judges and courts. An estimate of $2.5 million to meet all the refurbishing and shifting around is not expected to be enough, said Bryan.

Some of the recommendations that emerged in the course of the hearings, with some of the departments, included a need to increase the fee for solid waste from $15 to $20. A tightening solid waste budget proves that last year’s decrease in solid waste fees from $25 to $15 was probably somewhat over exuberant. Setting them at $20 will “set us up for five to six years,” said Bryan.

Commissioners indicated an inclination to eliminate lobbyist services during the off –legislative year.

The county has been supplementing RiverStone Health’s (the city-county health department) budget by $200,000 annually. Commissioner John Ostlund said that he was inclined to support eliminating that expenditure.

“Our budget shows enough stress,” said Ostlund. “I would have trouble supporting it.”

Clerk and Recorder Jeff Martin, whose budget remains quite stable, suggested that a plan be developed countywide for replacing computers on a rotating regular basis – every five to seven years – and that they develop a standardization plan regarding what equipment departments can purchase.

Martin also said his department will begin phasing out the use of microfiche. They have been digitizing old records and are as far back as 1996. Indexing the data is costly, however, said Martin. They have been budgeting $25,000 a year for the task.

Cal Cumin with the County Parks Department reported that Custer Park needs a new irrigation system. Harris Park in Lockwood needs a new lawn mower and a new shed in which to house it. Fortunately, two new subdivisions in Lockwood have donated $8,000 in “cash in lieu” of required parkland, which will help fund the cost of the lawnmower and shed.

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