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Departments asked to cut costs

County budget troubles

Faced with unhealthy economic budget trends and worried about impacts for 2011, members of the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners are asking county officials and employees to find ways to help the county save money.

"The costs of doing business have skyrocketed," explained County Commissioner Rex Johnston, chair of the Board of Commissioners. "We're not immune to the same stuff going on in the United States, with costs going up and revenues staying the same."

Johnston said the commissioners held a meeting with all county elected officials and department heads at the end of January to talk about fiscal concerns.

"We asked the department heads to look through their departments to find ways to cut back," Johnston said. "This year we pulled $650,000 from the general fund, and we can't do that next year. We're being pro-active. We've asked all departments to find ways to streamline or cut their budgets."

Johnston dismissed those who contend the county has so much revenue from the regional landfill that there shouldn't be any budget problems here. He pointed out that the landfill at Roosevelt is a nice source of income for Klickitat County, but it's no panacea.

"People think we're sitting on a big pile of money. We can't just stick our hand in that bag of money and pull out what we need," Johnston said. "We keep hearing these things."

"There seems to be a misconception -- almost like an urban myth -- that the county is sitting on piles of money," agreed County Commissioner David Sauter. "That's not the way it is."

Economic projections for the county in 2011 are alarming county officials.

"We see some trends that are not looking real good as far as revenue versus expenditures," Sauter pointed out. "We're spending more than we're taking in, for the first time in more than a decade. Next year, we're looking at projections to be $900,000 in the hole."

According to Sauter, the total general fund budget for the county in 2010 was around $14 million. It is projected to be roughly the same for 2011.

Sauter said the county is not ready to consider employee layoffs, but that could happen if other cost-saving measures fall short.

"We told the department heads, `we need you to start thinking now for 2011,'" Sauter said. "We need ways to save money so we can avoid layoffs in the future."

One of those who could be impacted by the new cost-cutting directives is Klickitat County Sheriff Rick McComas.

McComas said the primary focus of the recent meeting with the County Commissioners was to make sure the size of the county's budget did not grow.

"They did not talk about a percentage of cuts that would be needed, but addressed the need to hold to the 2009 budget level," McComas explained.

Johnston said rumors that Klickitat County Sheriff's Office deputies were being cut were false.

"We're not cutting the budget of the Sheriff's Office," Johnston said. "We want them to look at ways to make their department run efficiently and help us out in this crisis. Every department in the county is included. We're in some tough times. We're watching every nickel."

Johnston also made clear that no individual department is being singled out.

"Everybody needs to do this," Johnston said. "No matter how well you're running your department, there are cuts you can make. I'm pretty sure it's going to get worse before it gets better."

Johnston said the county's revenues were flat, while the county's costs for health insurance, wages, and benefits "are going crazy."

"We don't need infighting. We need to march in unison to deal with it," Johnston said.

Sauter made clear that employee cuts would be a last resort.

"We did not ask for any positions to be cut," Sauter said. "We're hoping we can take care of this through efficiencies. We're trying to get ahead of it. Layoffs are possible in 2011 if we need to balance the budget. We don't want to eliminate people's jobs. But we've made a commitment to live within our means."

Johnston and Sauter both pledged that there would be no layoffs in 2010. However, positions that come open may not be filled.

"If someone quits or retires, we are asking the departments to justify why they need that job filled," Sauter explained. "Everything is on the table for 2011."

"The commissioners prefer not to see personnel cuts, and I fully support that," said McComas. "I would not entertain any thoughts of cutting personnel. I expect to tighten our belt, and do the best we can."

McComas noted that many citizens are struggling economically right now, and county officials could not expect their departments to avoid the hard times.

"When times get tough, we're going to be right there with you and slim down," McComas pledged.

Despite the boost the landfill has provided to the county over the years, in this down economy, the landfill itself is also struggling, Johnston added.

"A lot of materials that go into our landfill are from new construction," he said. "If the economy keeps turning off, that's going to hurt the landfill."

Sauter said the commissioners were keeping a close eye on budgetary trends.

"We'll meet with the department heads again in a couple months," Sauter explained. "There are already some ideas out there for ways to cut expenses."

McComas said he was looking at ways to cut his department's costs by reducing outlays for training and for new equipment.

"Equipment we'd normally purchase as upgrades might just have to be put on hold," he pointed out.

However, McComas said that approach offered only a temporary solution to the budget crunch.

"As we start doing this, in two or three years the equipment not replaced now will come due all at once. I hope the county has that rainy day fund," McComas said.


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