By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Legislators held an emergency meeting Thursday in Monticello, kicking off 2010 budget planning in ominous terms.
“We’re not talking about trimming around the edges,” Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis warned those in attendance. “We’re talking about $9-$10 million [in costs to be cut]. ... This is bigger than it’s ever been.”
County Manager David Fanslau reiterated now-familiar numbers: $2 million less in sales tax revenues, $1 million less in state aid, $200,000 less in off-track betting revenue, and so on.
The total revenue shortfall so far this year, he said, is more than $6.6 million.
“We are looking at about a 2004 revenue base,” Fanslau explained of next year.
Yet costs have grown exponentially in the past five years, with Rouis pointing out that salaries and benefits alone have risen from $60 million in 2004 to $85 million today.
About 100 people may lose their jobs in county government, though Fanslau was looking for a number that would be “acceptable” to legislators.
Legislator Kathy LaBuda couched that figure in terms of a tax increase, saying she would support a three percent hike in county taxes a number that garnered assent from other legislators.
“Every department should give a body or several bodies,” she added though she wanted the Division of Public Works to lay off less because of past cuts to its workforce. “Some departments have to give the minimum, not the maximum.”
She was quickly criticized, however, for that stance.
“I think the nine of us have to be very careful that we don’t start championing departments, because it almost looks a little silly,” remarked Legislator Jodi Goodman.
Too many managers?
Goodman advocated for cutting down on contracted agencies and on multi-level management within county departments.
“In a crunch like this, you have to look at the levels of management: deputies, assistants, assistants that have assistants,” she explained. “There is going to have to be shared working, because it cannot fall on the backs of people below management.”
Legislator Elwin Wood pondered raising park fees or closing some parks altogether. He also broached what would become a recurring topic that morning: slicing contracts with outside agencies, perhaps by as much as 20 percent.
Legislature Vice Chair Ron Hiatt, however, didn’t feel he had enough solid figures to determine what to do, noting that the Dept. of Community Services was disputing Fanslau’s contention that its revenues are down by half a million dollars.
“That’s an extremely dangerous way to predicate your decision,” Rouis scolded Hiatt, pointing out that particular departments may not have a grasp on the “big picture.”
Nevertheless, Hiatt thought it might be prudent to hire someone to study actual county costs.
“Before I fire anybody or raise taxes one percent more than I need to,” he explained, “I want to be confident of the numbers.”
Wood shared that concern, worrying that too much cutting could hurt even worse than too little.
Goodman, however, felt Fanslau’s numbers can and should be trusted.
“No one can afford studies anymore,” she told Hiatt. “... I’d rather fund an employee than do another study.”
She then again urged legislators not to protectively focus on particular departments.
“We’ve got to look at the whole house,” she urged.
“Jodi, I said we all have to share the pain,” replied LaBuda, angrily pointing out that two Republican legislators Alan Sorensen and David Sager voted against last year’s budget.
“I didn’t feel last year there were sufficient reserves,” responded Sorensen, who continues to feel that way.
He predicted that revenues would stay flat for at least the next three years, necessitating rooting out available funds in every nook and cranny.
Sager was not present, but Sorensen expressed some reservations about the proposed solid waste fee system, worried about how it may impact businesses that generate large, sometimes unpredictable volumes of trash.
Fanslau, however, reminded all the legislators that not approving the waste fee which comes up next month would add a $4.5 million gap to next year’s budget.
Rouis felt that in the first year of operation, any inequities could be fixed.
Lou Setren, one of the primary union representatives in the county, interjected that his members are willing to make concessions, but the county must first provide an analysis and breakdown of each option its impacts and its savings.
Sorensen wondered if the unions might be willing to reduce work hours, but Fanslau said it should be just the opposite.
“We are at a point where we shouldn’t have 35-hour workweeks and 12 holidays and 15 sick days and 15 vacation days,” expressed the county manager. “We need three employees to cover two employees with all the time off that we give.”
Fanslau said the county should return to 40-hour workweeks and reduce vacation days, though Setren gave no indication as to whether or not that would be palatable to union members.
“I know that you will err on the side of caution,” Setren proffered, noting that some department heads and their assistants are all there is to a department.