Often it seems that government budgets are an impersonal part of life. Cuts here and cuts there affect specific departments or operations, but somehow things still get done and everyone seems to get through it. But sometimes they hit closer to home than most people think.
Last Wednesday night the Carbon County Commission met in a regular session and one of the main topics of the meeting was the final adoption of the county budget for 2004. But for two individuals the new budget looked bleak at the beginning of the session because the money for the services they provide the county was missing from the final package.
After, going through meeting after meeting and having a tentative look at the available funds a few weeks ago in the preliminary budget session, the county clerk, Bob Pero, presented a budget that fit the funds he said were available..
"When there's lots of money to work with it's kind of fun to come up with the budget," he told the commission. "But when there isn't very much, it's not a happy time. In the last two years we have had a flat growth pattern in the county, and so there is no extra money to budget toward programs this year. After our tentative look at the budget you (the commissioners) asked me to make some adjustments and I have done that. On your desk is the final budget as I am recommending it."
Pero pointed out that despite good and bad times in the last decade, the commission has not raised taxes in over 10 years. Some members of the audience begged to differ with that by pointing out that their taxes went up considerably this year, but explained that not all the fees charged on the property tax notices go to the county and that raises for some people were due to property reassessment.
"First of all some of the money people pay in taxes goes to the school district and as most of you know a new leeway tax was approved in February for that portion of the tax bill," he told the group. "Next, the state requires the assessors office to reassess property every five years now and that process began this year, so many people in the out-county area had their taxes raised because their property has gained value since it was last assessed and the amount they had to pay changed."
The budget that Pero presented to the commission included revenues from direct taxes, some interest that was transferred from the tax stability fund and some transferred from the "rainy day fund" the county has kept over the years.
The county operates it's services off of two main budgets; Fund 10, called the Municipal Services Fund and Fund 20 referred to as the general fund. Pero proposed a budget of $8,704,700 for the Fund 10 and $4,999,062 for Fund 20 at the meeting. These budgets were adjusted after the initial meeting with the commission just before Thanksgiving to reflect some changes that the commission wanted to make and to include some revenues that had been left out of the mix. Initially the budget did not provide for a number of things that are usually covered, but with the adjustments, Pero said he was able to include pretty much everything except two items; the money for a water coordinators position and payment for a lobbyist the county uses in Washington D.C. on land tax issues. Both positions must be paid out of Fund 20, because they are considered to be county wide positions, that deal with both municipal and out-county areas.
The absence of money for both these services brought on some long discussion. Casey Miller, who presently holds the water coordinator position that was in question, was present at the meeting for two reasons. One was to give his quarterly report to the commission and the other was to talk about the funding for his job.
Miller's position is compensated by the county, but his it is administered through the Department of Agriculture. Because of this, representatives from the service were present along with some of the board of the Price River Soil Conservation District. Also present were some individual users of Millers services. Miller had presented his report earlier in the meeting and had pointed out several projects he is currently working on including piping the Bryner-Ploutz ditch in Helper, doing preliminary work on Farnum, Gordon Creek and East Hayes Wash projects. He has also been working on the facilities that will need updating when Carbonville Road is rebuilt in the next couple of years and on various sprinkler evaluation projects for several users.
"This is a very important position to the county," stated Commissioner Bill Krompel as he turned to Pero and then asked, "Have you considered funding this position in Fund 20 rather than in the municipal services budget?"
Pero pointed out that it depended on where Miller provides his services. The discussion turned to whether Miller worked in just the unincorporated county or in the cities too.
"The projects we are working on go through cities as well as the county," Miller told the group. I have to work on projects where the water flows, I can do nothing about that."
Pero said that if he works within the cities the money must come out Fund 10, otherwise it would be considered double taxation for some residents.
There were a number of supporters of Miller's position in the audience and also a few detractors. Complaints voiced ranged from the coordinator spending too much time working for the Bureau of Reclamation to the fact he is spread so thin.
"Our hands are tied," explained Dave Varner of the National Resources Conservation Service. "His priorities have to follow the funding. We have $4.3 million in federal funding available to the county this year and we either have to use it or lose it. Casey can fill in gaps and work on things to get these projects through that we federally funded people cannot work on. That's the reason for his position."
One citizen also complained that there had been four different people in the water coordinators job in the last five years.
According to Varner one of the reasons for that is the lack of stability for funding the position. Those who come into the job, often apply for positions within the NRCS after having been in the water coordinators position for only a short time because the federal jobs funding is stable, and they can count on keeping their job.
"Tonight's debate over funding the position is a good example of why people move to another, more stable position," he told the Sun Advocate after the meeting concluded.
According to Varner, Miller has been an exception to that propensity to move on. He had the opportunity to go to a more stable position earlier in the year, but turned it down stating that he felt the water coordinators position needed someone to stick with it for awhile.
The lobbyist position was also debated. Robert Widener has been working for the county as a consultant for over 10 years, and the commissioners felt his position inWashington D.C. has gained the county a great deal.
"When I started with the commission the county was only bringing in about $200,000 a year in PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) money per year," said Commissioner Mike Milovich. "Since we have had Widener working for us the amount coming in has increased every year, up to about $600,000 this past year. I think the few thousand we have invested for that help has been well spent.
Part of the confusion on the situation is that Widener has billed the county various amounts over the years and the commissioners felt they needed to see some consistency.
In the end, since no other funds could be found to fund the two situations in Fund 10, the commission decided to ask the Carbon County Transportation and Recreation Special Service District board to approve $50,000 to fund the items.
The final budgets were then approved with Fund 10 getting a boost to $8,754,700, contingent on the action of the special service district approving the commissions request.