Commission takes input from employees on budget cuts

White Pine County employees packed into the County Courthouse Monday evening to listen to the county commission answer their questions on the upcoming budget cuts that affect their salaries.

District Attorney Mike Wheable moderated the meeting and asked questions submitted by county employees and the public to the five county commissioners regarding alternative ways to cut the budget outside of cutting employee hours.

“What we are doing now is what we should have done back in 2001 or 2002,” Chairman of the commission Gary Perea said in regards to why the commission isn’t willing to dip more heavily into the county’s ending fund balance to save from cutting employee hours.

He continued by saying that the issue had been put off for long enough and if it isn’t solved now, it will be the problem of the next commission.

“I’m not going to leave future commissions with that kind of baggage,” he said.

The commission called the special meeting to try and find alternatives to the cuts in the tentative fiscal year 2016 budget. County Finance Director Elizabeth Francis showed the employees in attendance a power-point presentation at the beginning of the meeting to break down exactly where the county is financially, and what new

White Pine County employees fill the County Courthouse Monday evening to hear the county commission answer budget questions. (Garrett Estrada photo)

White Pine County employees fill the County Courthouse Monday evening to hear the county commission answer budget questions.
(Garrett Estrada photo)

changes had been implemented into the budget since their previous meeting, namely that positions related to public safety would not have their hours reduced.

Another question asked the commission why they thought it was fair that regular employees were going to be subjected to an hourly reduction that equaled losing 12 and a half percent of their yearly salary while department heads were only proposed to take a 10 percent cut.

Commissioner Richard Howe answered that the larger yearly salary of a department head would be more adversely affected by a cut than the lower-paid employees, though many in attendance shook their head in disapproval.

Commissioner Laurie Carson added that department heads would ultimately be responsible for picking up the work that was lost by cutting employees hours so they were entitled to a smaller reduction.

Several new revenue sources were also discussed as ways to help increase the county’s cash flow and help alleviate their dependency on drawing funds from the ending fund balance. Howe said that he strongly supports re-introducing a “franchise fee” that would add a one percent tax on county residents’ power bills that would eventually increase to three percent over and undetermined number of years.  Several county employees in attendance spoke in favor of passing the new tax, arguing the increase would be a smaller hit to county residents than the proposed cuts would be to county employees’ livelihoods.

Commissioner Mike Coster voiced opposition to the new tax, saying that he was against any new “general taxes.” Coster said that added tax would hurt industry and scare away more businesses from opening in the county.

Other revenue alternatives that were suggested to the commission included reducing the number of commissioners from five to three or to increase usage fees for county provided services, such as golfing at the County Golf Course.

Commissioner Carol McKenzie said that she the idea of reducing the overall size of the commission sounds good on paper, but does not work well in practice.

“I remember three commissioners. Anytime anybody asks me that question, I ask them ‘which three of the five commissioners will you keep, and which of those three do you want running the county?’” she said.

McKenzie said that under three commissioners, one commissioner can usually influence one other commissioner and then they can pass anything they want.

“It could cause a lot of problems and I don’t want to see that happen ever again.”

McKenzie admitted during the meeting that she wasn’t fully aware of the situation the county was facing financially when she ran for the office last year and that she feels for the employees who might see their annual income reduced.

“I agree with the people that are hurting because this is going to hurt a lot of people. I hope that we can get it fixed.”

Carson said that in her eight years of experience as a commissioner, she has felt that the county has only ever applied “band-aids” to problems and that the reason the new proposed budget cuts are so painful are because the current commission is seeking more “permanent” solutions.

Carson said that she was pleased with the overall productivity of the meeting and that she appreciated everyone who came to listen or voice their opinion.

“I think this meeting opened the eyes of some of the commissioners and I think that it is good to hear from our employees,” Carson said.

The county has to submit a finalized budget to the state by July 1 of this year.