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County's budget is squeezed at both ends

"At more than 400 pages, Island County's budget documentation is a heavy piece of reading. Steeped in column after column of line items with labels such as CAP.IMP.REET 1 ALLOC.TRAN (Capital Improvement Real Estate Excise Tax Allocation Transfer), as well as bond interest payment schedules, and more than 70 department requests for spending increases, the meaty missive lays out the monetary expectations and fiscal plans for the coming year of county government.This year's budget has been restricted by recent ballot measures on what it can draw in taxes. It is also crimped on what it can spend by a long list of needs and mandates that require immediate funding.During October and early November the Island County Commissioners held workshops to hash out the budget and review requests for where the county's financial resources should go. So far the commissioners have hinted at some personal priorities, but their final discussions and decisions will take place during budget hearings starting Dec. 4.The passage of the property tax-limiting Initiative 722 last week forces the commissioners to hold any tax increase to just 2 percent of the 1998 levy which was collected in 1999. That means that even if the commissioners take the maximum in tax increases, the most extra tax income the county can hope to pull into its general fund will be a little more than $33,500. That's not much when you consider that the commissioners are looking at nearly $1.4 million in new and overdue department-expressed needs for the coming year.Department requests include everything from file folders and photo copies to new personnel, up-to-date computer software and gasoline for county vehicles. There is even a request for an extra $8,000 in travel allowance from the commissioners themselves.Out of the requests, the commissioners have already said they favor adding a new Sheriff's deputy, a new building inspector, a new night custodian, a new deputy prosecuting attorney and a public health visiting nurse program, among other things. Such budget items are in addition to what the commissioners call the must do list. This list includes paying increased medical insurance costs to the tune of $28,000; covering the extra $13,000 it will cost to transport juvenile offenders to out-of-county detention facilities; and beefing up the Assessor's budget by nearly $23,000 for simple necessities like postage, envelopes, computer programming and travel.Among the numerous requests the commissioners appear to be leaving out of the budget are a new position in the Auditor's office, a senior planner for Community Development, a new lawn mower for county parks and a second building inspector. But nothing has been thrown out or approved for sure yet.The commissioners plan to hold to the 2 percent tax increase authorized under Initiative 722, even though the initiative is already being challenged in court as unconstitutional. In the past, the commissioners have been able to raise the county's operational take from property taxes by up to 6 percent though they have seldom done so.That being the case, where will the rest of the money come from? The answer is several places.Besides local property taxes, the county receives various levels of specialized funding from both the state and federal government. It also gets grant money and collects a variety of fees, fines and forfeitures to add to its general revenue.Last year, the commissioners saw a need to set money aside for ongoing computer and equipment maintenance and replacement, so they started a $32,500 equipment reserve. There is no new source of money for the equipment reserve. It has to be carved out of the general fund like everything else. But it becomes a place to draw from at budget time or during the course of the year if a major equipment failure occurs.Another reserve fund is the commissioners' contingency. This fund also comes out of general revenue and is set aside for unexpected expenses that crop up during the year. When needed, money is transferred out of the contingency fund into the budget by a resolution approved by the commissioners. In the year 2000, the contingency held about $116,300. For 2001, the commissioners are expected to increase the figure to about $130,600.In addition, the county expects to take in about $447,000 more in revenue this year than it spent. This allows for some play room in handling some of the general cost-of-doing-business increases. But such increases can make the fund disappear fast. By the time the commissioners subtract their must do items, the balance shrinks to just $75,887.The commissioners also have discretionary money classified as carry forward. This is the difference between the amount of money collected during a year and the amount spent. During the last 10 years or so, the commissioners have pretty regularly spent less than was taken in, so the amount carried forward has now grown to close to $1 million. At least some of that money, also called the unreserved fund balance, will likely be used to pay for the new positions, programs and paraphernalia that the commissioners hope to add to the new budget. Currently, the commissioners are looking at spending about $275,000, or about a quarter, of the fund.Commission Mike Shelton said it's nice to have the unreserved fund balance money available when the need arises, but because the fund has no regular source of dollars to replenish it, there is always a risk in spending it on programs or personnel that will have ongoing or future costs to the county.-----------------Add your 2 centsWant to add your two cents into the county budget discussion? The Island County Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the year 2000 taxing district levies for county current expense and for county roads on Dec. 4 starting at 9:50 a.m. in the Commissioners Hearing Room of the Courthouse Annex in Coupeville. Members of the public are invited to attend and give testimony prior to a vote by the commissioners. A full text of the proposed resolution and summaries of the budgets may be picked up at the Island County Budget Director's Office in Coupeville or obtained through the mail by calling 679-7397. "

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