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Commissioners Ok `Tough' 2003 Plan

County adopts slimmer budget for new year

It was a daunting process, but on Dec. 30 the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners, approved the county's final 2003 budget.

County Commissioner Don Struck said it was a big challenge to figure out how to balance county services and project priorities against current economic realities.

"It's the toughest budget I've ever been associated with. We had to put in considerably more landfill dollars than we hoped to," Struck explained. "But there were so many revenue shortfalls, it was really the only way to balance the budget and continue the services we have. Everyone held the line at last year's level."

The county's total budget for 2003 is $30.9 million. Last year, it was close to $37 million. The decrease reflects completion of the Dallesport wastewater plant, the costs of which skewed last year's budget figures.

For 2003, the county will move close to $4 million from the landfill fund into the general fund. In recent years, the county has moved about $3.1 million from its landfill revenue into the general fund.

The overall level of funding for county departments in 2003 remains basically at last year's levels. However, Struck pointed out that some costs were out of the county's control, including insurance and health care.

"Health insurance premiums continue to rise," Struck said.

One key revenue shortfall facing the county came in its interest earnings.

"We're down almost $1 million in interest due to the poor overall economy," Struck explained.

No county employees face a layoff under the 2003 budget, but Struck noted that any replacement hires will be scrutinized.

"We have requested that as we see retirements, any new hirings come before the board for justification," Struck explained.

Also impacting the budget are planned salary adjustments for county employees. Wage increases for 2003 will results in an additional $160,000 cost over 2002's levels.

The Klickitat County Sheriff's Office budget for 2003 was approved at a $3 million level. KCSO has the second largest operating budget in the county, behind only the Road Department.

The KCSO allocation is expected to provide for the hiring of two more deputies. The cost of adding two more officers is anticipated to be offset by a decrease in overtime pay for other KCSO staff.

"There should be room for a couple new deputies," Struck said.

Sheriff Chris Mace said he was hopeful the budget would allow for additional law enforcement personnel.

"I've been pretty upbeat [about the budget process]," Mace said before the budget approval. "They didn't promise me anything, but they didn't throw anything out."

Struck said the county's budget for consultants and outside legal counsel -- a controversial issue in 2002 -- was cut by approximately two-thirds for next year.

"What was proposed was hacked considerably," Struck said. "We'll get by with the staff we have, except when we need specific legal help."

In another highlight of the new budget, the county penciled in $300,000 for Economic Development Authority grants in 2003. Last year, the landfill account provided $350,000 for community development projects around the county.

One key project that maintained its funding despite growing budget concerns was the planned west end annex/senior center in White Salmon. The commissioners stuck to their goal of beginning work on the facility, which will be called the West County Pioneer Center.

In a tradeoff, however, some proposed improvements at other county facilities, including the county fairgrounds and the county courthouse, were put on hold.

"We backed off on many capital improvements projects for about two years, because the Pioneer Center takes priority and obviously we're committed to it," Struck said.

Struck added that the committee overseeing the Pioneer Center project has narrowed a list of 13 architectural proposals to three. The county plans to choose an architect sometime in January.

The 2003 budget was approved on a 2-0 vote.

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