By Scott Robertson
Last Friday’s meeting of the Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee ended on a “good news-bad news” note. The county school system provided a budget the committee could recommend to the full commission – on its third try – but the rest of the county budget, driven by forecast increases in health insurance claims, still needed $1.8 million in additional revenues and spending cuts in order to balance. That committee meets again at 9 a.m. today in the Washington County Courthouse.
“We have to make a decision on how much to budget for insurance claims,” County Mayor Dan Eldridge said Friday. “We need to have that worked out before Wednesday.”
Last Wednesday, the committee learned of a $1.8 million predicted increase in healthcare-related costs for the upcoming year. That figure put the budget out of balance by around 5 percent. At the time the notion of an across-the-board 5 percent cut was discussed, by Eldridge who said Friday that idea has been scrapped in favor of cobbling together a combination of specific spending cuts and revenue adjustments. “I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere near 5 percent,” Eldridge said. “I think Wednesday we will have a balanced budget to present to the budget committee. We have revenue line items like the Federal Prison Board. We’re supposed to get an increase from $57 to $75 per night that adds up to a $400,000 increase in revenue. Confirming that we’re getting that revised contract will allow us to knock a big dent in that deficit. We have a handful of things like that. We have a drug task force thing we do with the city that we get reimbursed for by the feds. We didn’t have that revenue budgeted. So it’ll be a combination of revenue and cuts that gets us there.
“What I don’t know is whether the insurance consultants will come back and offer us any hope on these claim projections,” Eldridge said Friday. “I just don’t know what to say about that yet.”
The budget committee approved sending on to the full commission the school budget brought by Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton and Schools Finance Director Brad Hale Friday. That proposal requires $1.29 million from the schools’ fund balance and includes 10 fewer educators than worked for the system in 2016-2017. Though there were no layoffs proposed, five retiring or resigning teachers will not be replaced, as will five teachers who failed to achieve tenured status.
It’s likely the budget committee will repeat its actions of 2016, when it passed on to the full commission a balanced budget that did not include every recommendation that had come through other committees. Those recommendations were given to the full commission without the endorsement of the budget committee and without a funding mechanism defined. “The budget committee essentially said, ‘we aren’t going to kill it, but because there aren’t funds for it, we aren’t going to put it in the budget either.’”
That strategy takes the budget committee out of the role of “black hole committee” where other committees’ projects go to die, and lets the full commission decide whether to amend the proposed balanced budget to cut spending elsewhere, or to dip into the fund balance, in order to pay for the other committees’ recommended projects.
“Because those projects had been initiated in committee and been recommended by committee, the budget committee said, ‘We’ll let the full commission make the decision if they want to amend the budget that has been sent and include these things, that’s 25 people making that decision, not just the budget committee.”
Among the projects likely to be moved to the full commission without recommendations from the budget committee are pay for firefighters; as well as additional funding for Hands On! Museum, 9-1-1, and EMS.