Final Flathead County Budget Approved

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County’s Board of Commissioners voted last week to pass the 2009-2010 county budget, touting it as an effort that realistically reflects the current recession.

Flathead County Administrator Mike Pence described the budget as a collaborative effort between all county departments to reach the guidelines set by the commissioners, including freezing or reducing county expenditures from the 2008-2009 budget.

Commissioner Jim Dupont said he was pleased with the budgeting efforts.

“When other parts of the country are so deep in debt, Flathead County is still solvent,” Dupont said.

The only item that caught any heat was the 1.9 percent cost-of-living increase for the county’s 509 employees. Dupont said this served as fair compensation for workers who are handling more responsibilities as other employees are laid off.

Commissioner Joe Brenneman applauded the budgeting efforts from the various county departments, but he said the county employee pay increases should have been cut.

“This is not the year to give ourselves a raise,” Brenneman said.

Pence said the budget hearing was delayed to Oct. 21 because the state Department of Revenue was late with the valuation numbers for the statewide property tax reappraisal.

After the reappraisal assessments in Flathead County, the total market value for the county rose from $7 billion to $7.7 billion. The new taxable value increased 8 percent, certified now at $224 million.

Since reappraisal is supposed to be a revenue-neutral endeavor, mill levies are typically reduced in areas with increased property value to ensure no profit is made. Pence stated that the commissioners chose not to pursue the maximum mill levy limits allowed by law, resulting in a decrease in mills.

The proposed county tax levy for 2009-2010 is 135.75 mills, compared to 145.96 mills last year. A countywide mill is now valued at $215,926, compared to $207,471 last year. The proposed levy would pay for half of the county employees’ pay increases as well as the business overhead.

Pence said the mill levy change would equal a $42-decrease on the county’s portion of the property tax bill on a $150,000-house, compared to a $34-increase last year. However, since the revaluation was based on individual properties, Pence said they are still unsure how it will affect all taxpayers.

The county has a projected beginning general fund balance of $35.2 million – a combination of money from taxes and non-tax funds. The county’s total revenue is projected at $70.2 million. Total projected expenses are $72.8 million. This leaves a projected ending balance of $32.6 million.

In terms of the tax amount actually applied to individual tax bills for county services, the county is proposing over $27.6 million in 2010. This is an increase of only $3,792 total tax dollars from last year. Pence said the relatively small increase was due to the commissioner’s guidelines, which directed the county to avoid more strain on taxpayers.

Pence credited the county’s cash reserve to four and-a-half years of good planning. But the county’s largest source of revenue – property taxes – could present a challenge in future balancing efforts because growth has been stalled by the recession.

Due to lower revenues, the county reduced personnel across several departments, totaling 10.5 full-time employees. This saved the budget $400,000, Pence said. He also said some of these eliminated positions will not be filled in the future, but others may as the economy improves.

The capital improvement program will cost $5,109,669 this year, an increase from last year’s $5,037,534. Some of the larger CIP department budgets include: Solid waste at $790,300; E-911 at $1,318,000; transportation/Eagle Transit at $980,585; clerk of court at $13,950; Sheriff at $400,600; building maintenance projects at $137,259; and $60,000 for the detention center.

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