As the Park County commissioners slowly move towards enacting solutions for the county’s budget woes, those elected officials wanted to make their stance about one possible solution clear at a recent meeting.
“No, we’re not going to cut staff,” newly appointed chairman Joe Tilden said. “What the future is going to bring six months from now? I can’t tell you. But where we stand right now I see no reason to cut staff.”
Tilden said the county will try to rely on employee attrition, financial cuts and maneuvering to make ends meet come the next fiscal cycle.
During a Jan. 7 meeting, the commissioners discussed the cuts they are willing to make. What appears the most likely source of scale-backs is maintenance to roads with three or less landowners, increasing liquor license, landfill and other permitting fees, and reduced funding for local nonprofits.
Since last July, the commissioners and a budget committee made up of elected officials and county department heads have been formulating ideas for how to cover the $1.9 million deficit.
The biggest form of savings that has also seemed to draw the least controversy is in drawing $500,000 in expenses from the state-funded County Road Fund to supplement general maintenance projects.
“To me, that’s a slam dunk,” Tilden said.
The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Revenue Interim Committee will consider a new bill in its upcoming session that would raise the fuel tax by 3 cents per gallon. The increase would provide up to $500,000 more annual funding to the County Road Fund.
“But counting on the Legislature to raise taxes? Yeah I wouldn’t spend that money this week,” commissioner Jake Fulkerson said.
Although nothing will be concrete as to what the county revenues look like until the 2020 Wyoming Legislature concludes its budget session in March, treasurer Barb Poley said initial projections are trending flat.
County engineer Brian Edwards said seeking out governmental grants will be critical for public works funding moving forward. Although this fund is not used on even a yearly basis, it provides a critical base to fund emergency construction and grant projects that require matching funds, such as the Federal Land Access Program for the recent South Fork road work. There is about $4 million in the fund right now.
Cuts and fees
Money saved from reducing or eliminating all subdivision road and low-volume road maintenance could save the county as much as $435,000, but those savings would be in the long-term rather than any kind of immediate effect.
“We have to decide what we’re going to maintain and what we can’t afford to maintain,” Fulkerson said. “We’ve got to put our dollars where most of our people live.”
Park County provided about $355,685 to outside entities in 2019; an area targeted for possible cuts. One line item commissioner Lloyd Thiel has specifically mentioned before and briefly mentioned again is the county’s recycling centers, which received $14,101.
“There could be severe cuts to special funding requests,” Commissioner Lee Livingston said.
Tilden said special entities receive about 20% less county funding than eight years ago.
“A lot of these people depend on that money and if they don’t get some kind of money from us, they’re not going to exist,” Tilden said.
These organizations will be notified of the potential cuts and will be given the chance to meet with commissioners to discuss how reduced funding would affect them.
“I’m probably going to have a hard time funding some of these special requests if it means firing one of my employees,” Livingston said.
The Park County Parks and Recreation Board receives $180,000 from the county alone. A large portion of this sum is then redistributed to nonprofits.
“I don’t think it would be unreasonable to cut that down by $10,000 or $20,000,” said commissioner Dossie Overfield, Parks and Rec liaison for the commissioners.
Increases at the landfill would come either to the tipping fees or through the form of a new “scale fee” on each delivery. Last year rates were lowered from $78 to $74 per ton.
Thiel argued that raising rates would not be a fair way to raise revenue as it would not impact City of Powell residents. Powell does not utilize the landfill as the municipality has its trash trucked to Billings.
Livingston proposed the scale fee which could come at $5 per drop-off, an idea Thiel supported.
“It’s a way of raising the rates without raising the rates,” Livingston said. “It’s a perception thing.”
The county will also likely cut about $400-$600 for juror’s lunches.
“No other counties pay for juror’s lunches,” Park County District Court Clerk Patra Lindenthal said.
Liquor licenses will likely be increased from $600 to $1,500 to match the City of Cody and City of Powell rates, and charges for right-of-way permits may also begin.
The liquor license rate hikes that will affect 26 businesses will likely be voted on in a public hearing by March, so the price change can be updated on the 2020-2021 liquor license applications, which go out in April and are finalized in July.
The library will also seek $80,000 less in operations funding in next year’s budget cycle with the use of its stored funds. Park County provided the library system about $1.7 million in 2019. Money will also be saved from decreasing $22,000 in funds from the library deposit system.
“We made a one-year commitment,” library board member John Gordnier said. “I suspect that there may be some arm wrestling that occurs at a later point in time but we’re prepared to arm wrestle.”
Fulkerson and others expressed support for the idea of a .25-2% employee contribution to retirement plans and a scale-based health insurance premiums contribution, but also a 2% cost of living wage adjustment.
“Now is the time to get employees to put skin in the game,” Fulkerson said.
Although these may seem like small contributions, for many employees, it can have an impact.
“That retirement today doesn’t buy any one of my frontline people a bag of groceries,” Hans Odde, deputy county clerk, said.
While it appeared a consensus was reached on a number of issues during the meeting, no formal action on any of these items will begin until at least February.
Although not discussed at their Jan. 7 meeting, the commissioners expressed support in December for a 1% general use sales tax that would be asked upon voters on the November 2020 ballot that would raise a substantial amount of revenue. No mention was likewise made of pulling from the $14 million the county has in reserves.
“It may take drastic cuts before the public buys into the increased revenue,” Thiel said.
Commissioners tighten rehire process
After the Park County commissioners approved nearly every position rehire that came before them in the first half of the fiscal year, they appear to now be tightening down on the issue. On Jan. 7 two part-time positions with the county were rejected for replacement for at least 90 days. In late 2019, a full-time receptionist and a part-time audio/visual specialist at the Cody Library were also not replaced. Not replacing these positions amounts to more than $100,000 in savings for the county.
The county is currently exploring options for hiring a private business to maintain the lawns at some of the county’s buildings, contracting out its janitorial services, which amount to about 15-17 employees. Any agreement with an outside entity, Fulkerson said, would come with the stipulation that those county employees must be used by the contracted outside firm.
Mike Garza, Park County buildings and grounds superintendent, said he has already had one full-time custodian leave for another job, possibly due to fears of losing their job. Park County Engineer Brian Edwards said he has also felt heat from some of his employees regarding this topic.
“It ruffles some feathers and people take that and run with it, and perception becomes reality,” Edwards said.
Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said any shortfalls come budget time will hopefully be covered by employee attrition. If not, he said departments will likely be asked to cut 10% of their budgets however they see fit.
“There’s going to have to be some cuts somewhere,” Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said. “You know where it’s going to have to come from and that’s employees.”