County Commission Approves Preliminary Budget

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County commission unanimously approved a $71.5 million preliminary expenditure budget last week – an approximately $630,000 decrease off last year’s spending.

According to the preliminary budget, the county is starting the year with a projected balance of $30.8 million. Its total revenue projection is about $69.6 million, while expenditures are expected to total $71.5 million.

“This year is close to a freeze,” County Administrator Mike Pence said. “There’s between a zero and 1 percent change in nearly all of our basic operating budgets.”

The one large exception, however, is in the county’s roads department, where expenditures will increase from about $6.1 million last year to nearly $8.2 million. The jump in spending is the result of an unexpected wave of federal funding to the department, including approximately $424,000 in stimulus monies, $813,000 in federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds and $675,000 in Secure Rural Schools funding.

“We’re pretty fortunate to get that infusion of dollars and we’re putting it all into road department projects this year,” Pence said. Projects include a rural special improvement district on Mennonite Church Road, if it’s approved; paving on Grayling Road; gravel road maintenance on McMannamy Draw and Badrock Drive; crushing and other road maintenance improvements.

To keep spending stagnant, the county asked department heads to cut their budgets again this year and has been holding vacant positions open.

Over the past three years, the county has reduced staff at the Road and Bridge department by eight full-time employees. Additionally, the county has seven-and-a-half more full-time equivalent positions that have been kept open through attrition, including workers at the clerk and recorder, commissioner and planning offices. The solid waste department is reduced by one full-time position.

There are also some vacancies coming up at both the planning and treasurer offices that will not likely be replaced in the short term, Pence said.

“Ever since the economy went down, we’ve been cutting back as much as we can in just about every category,” Pence said. “We’ve been trying to avoid any of the nice-to-have things, and spending only on the must-haves.”

He added that county expenditures from each department showed even greater cuts before the commission approved a 1.9 percent cost-of-living raise for all county employees in June. “That brought us closer to even with last year’s spending,” he said.

The preliminary expenditure budget is a best-guess estimate at the county’s spending during this fiscal year, relying on last year’s mill levy and property tax numbers to ballpark revenue. Exact numbers aren’t available until the state’s Department of Revenue sets its annual valuation levels – the amount the county is able to tax.

This year, that information is coming later than usual. In June, the Department of Revenue sent a letter to the county saying it wouldn’t deliver taxable values until late August – nearly a month behind its usual schedule – because of changes in the department’s methods mandated during the recent legislative session.

“This is the first time in recent years that we have asked for approval of the preliminary expenditure budget,” Pence said. “But we thought it was necessary since our final budget will come several months into the fiscal year.”

The fiscal year started on July 1. Pence said it’s likely the commission won’t hold a public hearing and consider final approval of the budget and tax levies until late September.

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