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Caught in middle: Committee struggles with county budget

Pierce County government's 2007 budget work moved into full swing last week as the county board's finance committee spent more than six hours going over budget scenarios and possible cuts for various departments.

The meeting started on a somber note as Finance Director Julie Brickner--reviewing numbers audited in July--reported the county's undesignated general fund carryover dropped from $6.3 million to $6.2 million in 2005.

Also, said Brickner, at the end of 2005, delinquent property taxes totaled $1.3 million--an increase of over 37 percent in a year.

"I think that's one of the biggest jumps that I've seen in the county," she said.

The audit also showed the human services department, which received $1.35 million in local taxes last year, ran a $406,000 deficit for 2005. No decision has been made on covering that deficit.

County administrators have warned that, because of increasing labor and fuel costs, simply doing business as usual will result in a county property tax levy that is $200,000 above the highest anticipated state-mandated cap.

In preparation for 2007 budget work, the county board directed departments and their parent committees to prepare 2007 scenarios showing how each department's local tax levy spending could be cut by 15 percent and the impact if those cuts were made.

Since then, departments have requested nine new full-time employees and have asked that hours be increased for 10 other positions.

Law enforcement

Last week, finance committee members were most disappointed by the sheriff's department's response to the 15 percent cut directive.

"Law enforcement didn't make much of an impact," said County Board Chairman Paul Barkla, who took part in the meeting by speaker phone.

During its July 18 meeting, the law enforcement committee voted to recommend against the 15 percent cut and to report a split opinion among committee members, with some recommending a three percent budget increase and some suggesting a budget freeze.

The finance committee unanimously adopted Barkla's motion to send the sheriff's department budget back to the law enforcement committee and again ask for potential cuts.

When he met with the finance committee last week, Sheriff Everett Muhlhausen said reducing his base budget by 15 percent would mean cutting $735,000.

He offered two plans: One that would end up costing the county significantly more and one he said would "create havoc" in the department.

Muhlhausen's "Action Plan 1" called for closing the jail. That would eliminate three jailer jobs and 2? cooks, and cut costs for equipment and supplies. But, said the sheriff, it would increase costs for out-of-county boarding of prisoners to over $1 million a year and cut the revenue the county receives from work-release prisoners.

The sheriff estimated the net impact of closing the jail would be a $1.2 million increase in costs.

Muhlhausen's "Action Plan 2" called for eliminating nine deputy or clerical jobs. He estimated the savings in salaries, benefits, training and equipment at $735,000.

He said that would leave only six officers to patrol, not enough to fill the work schedule. With those cuts, said Muhlhausen, the department would have to prioritize the calls to which it would respond and it would "effectively eliminate any investigations."

"It would be necessary to refrain from responding to small type incidents such as small thefts, minor car accidents, vandalism," Muhlhausen told the committee. "The residents of Pierce County would no longer have the benefit of guaranteed response from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department."

Human services

To meet the 15 percent goal, his department would have to cut expenses or find new revenues totaling $247,033, said Human Services Director Reggie Bicha.

He suggested saving $78,600 by not filling a long term support staff position that's empty now. Another possibility he offered was to buy a couple of fleet vehicles, which are cheaper to operate than paying employees the standard rate for driving their own cars.

Bicha suggested redirecting to his department $10,000 in funding that now goes to the public health department, reassigning food pantry costs to the office on aging, developing an after-care program for youths now in institutions and making a stronger effort to go after reimbursements for emergency detention hospitalizations.

Bicha said clients owe the county $800,000 for hospital stays from 1999 to 2005. The county could attempt to recoup some of that money by using the state income tax intercept process or hiring a collection agency.

But, said Bicha, caution is necessary to avoid putting too much pressure on clients who are already emotionally and financially unstable. One client going into crisis as a result of more aggressive collection efforts could cost the county $1,000 a day in additional hospital costs, he said.

Highway department

The highway department would have to cut its 2007 budget by $437,458 to meet the 15 percent goal, said Highway Commissioner Ross Christopherson.

"We have an efficient operation," he said, indicating that, while the overall county tax levy has increased much faster, his department has had an average levy increase of 2.45 percent over the last 20 years. In 1986, the department received $1.9 million from the county and this year it got $2.9 million.

He said the department has cut 13 positions in the last 16 years.

Christopherson said his department could save $70,000 by mowing only intersections on the county road system and mowing only a third of county road right-of-ways in October. It could also save about $43,000 a year by repainting 40, rather than 80, miles of centerline a year and by not painting fog strips along the roads.

To completely meet the 15 percent goal, the department would have to reduce its road reconstruction work by .77 mile per year and would fall behind on its reconstruction schedule, said Christopherson.

He advised against doing that.

"I think it's just bad business and we end up paying for it in the future."

Public health

The public health department would have to cut $109,000 from its budget to meet the 15 percent goal, said Public Health Director Caralynn Hodgson.

"The public health department has always run lean, so we have very little fat to lose," she said. Hodgson identified three levels of cuts: The first five percent are cuts the department "could live with the easiest," and the 10 percent and 15 percent cuts are "ideas" that are harder to handle.

Top among her proposals were saving $30,683 by eliminating the jail nurse from the public health department, eliminating a part of the pre-employment physical the department does for new county workers and cutting the department's booth at the county fair.

She said the department could save $7,000 a year by discontinuing foot clinics for the elderly and would save about $35,600 from its levy next year by using revenue reserves from several programs.

The department could save about $14,000 a year by eliminating its Elmwood and Plum City office sites, but Hodgson advised against that, saying it would reduce access to health programs for families who are already struggling financially.

She suggested increasing revenues by billing private insurance companies for visits to at-risk newborns and by increasing influenza vaccine rates to what Medicare will reimburse.

The finance committee gave tentative approval to cuts offered by some of the smaller departments and will continue budget work when it meets again at 6:30 p.m. next Monday.