After a summer of number crunching, Flathead County Commissioners approved an approximately $69 million budget Tuesday morning.
With revenue from growth in the county declining significantly, county officials trimmed department budgets this year, put a freeze on new hires and approved the maximum levies allowed in hopes of avoiding staff cuts and severe budget shortfalls next year.
The county is beginning the year with a balance of $27.4 million. Its total revenue projection is about $67.6 million, while expenditures are expected to total about $69.4 million and will cut into reserves.
The budget represents a total tax levy of 145.96 mills – a 3.57 mill increase from last year. A county resident with a $150,000 market value home will see an increase of $34.31 on their property tax bill.
The increase in tax revenue will help fund some capital improvement budget items and a raise for county employees, plus allow the county to maintain its cash reserves.
In recent years, new growth has provided the needed revenue to maintain the county’s current level of service, but the recent decline in construction activity has cut new valuation dollars by about half. This year’s valuation growth increased just 2.7 percent, and county officials expect even further decline next year.
“We have worked hard to build adequate fund balances so we will be OK this budget year,” County Administrator Mike Pence told county department heads earlier this month. “In anticipation of even more dramatic reduction in growth numbers, we are taking proactive measures to try to avoid painful budgetary actions next year.”
In early September, county commissioners asked department heads to review their budgets again, looking for any reductions possible, Pence said. The management team cut another $681,805 from the original budget requests.
While cutting department budgets and holding vacant positions open may prevent layoffs next year, the result will be a decline in some county services. For example, the Road Department has left 8 ½ full-time positions open and will likely lose about $900,000 in federal funding. Services like snow plowing will be slowed, Pence said, because there will be fewer employees covering the same ground.
Despite the hiring freeze, the commission did approve about four requests for full-time employees as part of the new budget. The mosquito abatement program received two part-time employees funded by one mill levy. A FTE request for a nurse position at the detention center was granted because a large part of the cost will be offset by reduction in contract service costs paid out in past budgets. Eagle Transit was granted 1.85 FTE for additional bus drivers and a part-time bus cleaner – another program fully funded by a voted one mill levy. And a 1/4 FTE was approved for the records retention program and funded by the state.
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