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County approves budget amid uncertainty
County will lose $654,000 if county payments bill is not renewed by U.S. Congress
The Union County board of commissioners and its budget committee met Wednesday and approved a 2012-13 budget with enough money in it to maintain services at the current level, though some uncertainties remain.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty of all is whether the U.S. Congress will extend the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, the so-called “county payments” bill that provides timber-dependent counties with dedicated funding for schools and roads.
The bill is due to sunset and, if it’s not renewed, Union County will lose $654,000. Public Works Director Doug Wright told the board and budget committee that loss of county payments would have a big impact on his department’s efforts to maintain transportation infrastructure.
He said Public Works has a lot to do this year, including road improvements, road maintenance and control of noxious weeds. With Congress still making up its mind, the county payments money isn’t figured into the budget as it usually is.
“My beginning fund balance is lower,” Wright said.
Wright was one of several people giving fiscal reports and updates and making requests as the board and committee met to consider approval of a proposed budget that totals $32.5 million, with $8.9 million going to the general fund.
Another person addressing the panel was District Attorney Tim Thompson, who said his budget is “status quo” for the upcoming year, except for his requests for money to upgrade his computer system, and to keep two staff people whose positions are threatened because of the expiration of grants.
Thompson said his office’s computerized case management system is out of date and is not compatible with new systems and programs. Repeated attempts to keep the old system working have failed, he said.
“The system is dying, and the server is dying,” Thompson said.
On the personnel issues, Thompson said grant funding is running out for a part-time deputy district attorney and a full-time crime victims advocate. He said his office has applied for additional grant money, but hoped in the meantime the board and committee would approve a request for money to fund those positions for three months.
Both Thompson’s requests were included in the 2012-13 budget proposal, and remained in the budget at the close of the hearing. The at-risk positions are funded until September.
In more testimony during the three-hour hearing, Curt Howell of the Union County Weed Board asked that the county continue funding for the Tri-County Weed Management Program. He said noxious weeds threaten valuable crops.
“Union County has a long history of producing quality grass seed crops. They are high value crops that bring extra income to the county,” Howell said. “Now is not the time to abandon funding.”
Though the county is continuing participation in the Tri-County program in 2012-13, it is doing so at a reduced level. County Commissioner Steve McClure said the public works department is re-evaluating methods and funding mechanisms for weed control, but added that the county will remain active in the fight against poisonous weeds.
“I don’t want the agricultural community or the weed board to think we’re walking away from it. We have to look at a different model,” McClure said.
Wright added assurances that the county isn’t backing away from the problem.
“I understand how important it is. We need to work together to figure out how we’re going to fund it,” he said.
In another agriculture-related issue, several people showed up to support additional funding for the USDA Wildlife Services’ local predator control program. Curt Mattson of USDA said there is an increasing need for predator control, and local cattle producer Rob Beck backed Mattson up.
Beck said coyote depredation is at an unprecedented high.
“We are losing livestock more than I’ve ever seen before. In the last two years, if we’re not there at night and there’s a set of twins, one doesn’t make it,” he said.
Beck speculated that the re-introduction of wolves into the region might be contributing to the problem with coyotes.
“When wolves come into an area, the coyotes leave. It makes you wonder if the wolves are moving into the hills and the coyotes are coming into the valley,” he said.
On a motion from Commissioner Mark Davidson, the budget panel approved an additional $5,000 in funding for predator control, contingent on a dollar-for-dollar match from local producers.
In still other business during the meeting, the board heard testimony from Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen, who said his priority for the coming year is to maintain staffing levels and services, even though demand for services and jail space is up.
“At this point we’re doing a good job keeping our head above water,” Rasmussen said. He said his proposed budget will need to be adjusted when the sheriff’s office finalizes its contract with the City of Elgin for law enforcement services.
Others testifying before the committee included Travis Miller of Community Corrections and Rico Weber of the Center for Human Development.
Community Corrections is the county’s parole and probation department. Miller said caseloads are up and that he is doing all he can to maintain current staffing levels despite possible cuts in state and grant funding.
“There’s just no way I can cut a position this year,” Miller said.
The Center for Human Development provides a broad range of social services for county residents. Weber said his request for $241,000 in county funding this year included a $10,000 raise for Veterans Services Officer Byron Whipple. He said CHD currently is not paying Whipple a competitive salary.
The county budget does allow for Whipple’s raise, though CHD only will receive $228,000.
At the close of the hearing, the budget panel recommended approval of Budget Officer Shelley Burgess’ proposed $32.5 million budget with little comment. The board of commissioners will vote on final approval during its regular session June 27.