The County Cubicle: Budgeting in difficult times

Editor’s note: In an effort to keep residents informed on happenings within county government, county employees will contribute biweekly articles for “The County Cubicle.”
These articles may include responses to reader questions or expression of interest. Readers are encouraged to submit questions or suggestions to County Administrator Pat Hooker at 878-9436 or phooker@co.rio-blanco.co.us

Some may think of fall as hunting season but for Rio Blanco County, fall is budget season. Things get started in late July with each department receiving a packet of information from the budget office. This includes general guidance from the board of commissioners on how to budget based on what seems appropriate in the current economy. The 2011 budget is to be “flat,” with no increase over the prior year’s budget.
In late August, the assessor’s office certifies property values. Property taxes are the largest county-generated revenue source. Rio Blanco’s valuations have been growing during the previous five years. That trend has now changed with a slight decline this year. An additional decline is expected next year.
Other revenues must also be projected to determine their impact on budgeted expenditures. As the poor economy takes its toll at the federal and state levels, those governments are passing less money down to local government. Rio Blanco County has seen a decline in Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) funding for projects. On the local level, fees from new construction, sales taxes and use taxes are also down. Other revenue sources have held fairly steady. Just like your personal budgets, county spending must be adjusted as revenues fluctuate.
By mid-September, all spending requests must be submitted. The budget office then has one month to compile all of the information into a proposed budget. The following month is spent in budget workshops with each department reviewing their budget proposal with the commissioners. Other than finishing touches on the presentation, the budget process is complete by mid-November. In mid-December the budget is adopted at a formal budget hearing and the mill levy is certified.
The county remains conservative in these uncertain times. Revenues that may not materialize are not budgeted to be spent. Departments have been given direction to take advantage of natural attrition whenever possible and to monitor costs closely. The safety net of reserve fund balances is being protected to provide a cushion against a possible prolonged slump in the economy.
The 2011 budget will be presented in a public hearing Dec. 13, at 6 p.m. in the commissioners’ meeting room at the Fairfield Center.
Please call 878-9440 for answers to county finance questions any time.