News Article Details

Commissioners to Discuss Mental Health Tax as Budget Meetings Conclude

The Chronicle - 10/5/2017

Oct. 03--Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of stories taking a close look at the Lewis County budgeting process as commissioners face harsh realities in seeking to balance the 2018 budget.

Look for another story in Thursday's edition. See previous coverage at chronline.com.

The last county department finished its budget presentation on Monday as the Board of Lewis County Commissioners wrapped up the majority of its meetings before looking at what services or programs may need to be cut or reduced in preparation for adopting a structurally balanced budget for next year.

Commissioners will use the information from the meetings held in September to look at ways to bridge a $1.2 million difference between the county's expected revenues and expenditures in 2018.

Today, commissioners Gary Stamper, Edna Fund and Bobby Jackson will hold a meeting to discuss a one-tenth of 1 percent mental health tax that provides more revenue for related services.

Preliminary budget meetings began earlier this year as commissioners asked departments and offices to keep their 2017 adopted budget levels. That means many of the departments and offices would have less money to operate next year because of rising insurance and retirement costs and intergovernmental fees for services and retirements.

Several departments stated during Thursday's seven hours of budget meetings that employee retention has been an issue because other nearby counties offer higher wages.

Archie Smith, with human resources, said the take-home pay for Lewis County employees decreases on a year-by-year basis because of the rising costs of benefits.

Departments submitted a total of $930,144 requests for increases for the 2018 year. Each request will be evaluated and later approved or denied by the commissioners.

Talks of reducing costs have focused on non-mandated programs, the potential relocation of the Washington State University's Extension Office from the courthouse to the fairgrounds, a levy shift from roads to the general fund, new taxes and an assessment that would fund the noxious weed department.

This year, commissioners adopted a budget that utilized a projected $1.9 million in reserves. At year's end, the use of reserves is expected to be closer to around $629,189.

The vast majority of meetings took place during three jam-packed, full-day sessions. A citizen advisory group took part in the process, providing input and suggestions to departments.

The committee has formed a draft report detailing the process and their observations. Once the document is finalized, it will be discussed during a meeting with the commissioners, per the committee's request. The group has also expressed the desire to hold a public meeting to present the information to residents who are interested.

The hope is the group will provide a different perspective as commissioners make decisions to reach their goal of adopting a structurally balanced budget that doesn't use reserves. Committee members have said there isn't much to cut.

"It seems like everyone is trying pretty hard to cut as much as they can to the bone," Mitch Townsend, from the advisory committee, said after the first full day of budget meetings earlier in September.

Becky Butler, the county's budget analyst, said the budget process this year went well. She said consolidating the majority of the meetings into a three-day time span generated positive feedback.

"I think keeping the budget theme going throughout the entire day, even when we did the two days back-to-back and keeping everyone on task and in the budget mode so you are not putting other meetings in the middle is successful," she said.

Prior to adopting a budget on Dec. 4, the numbers will likely change.

Assessor's Office

The 2018 preliminary budget shows the assessor's office with $20,000 in revenue and $1,728,586 in expenditures. There are 18 full-time equivalent positions in the office. Butler said the amount of revenue is not a true representation of what is brought in by the office because property taxes are reflected in the treasurer's budget.

Like many other offices, salaries and benefits make up the majority of the expenditures, followed by interfund rates that all departments and offices are required to pay.

The assessor's office is responsible for valuing all real and personal property in the county. In 1998, the county's assessed value was $3.7 billion. For this year, it will be over $7.3 billion, although the final numbers have not yet been computed.

"Currently Lewis County is not gaining or growing more land, but we are getting more parcels every year," Assessor Dianne Dorey said. "What's happened is the parcel numbers have increased, the population has increased, the workload has increased, but the staffing has not. We are doing more with less."

Dorey is asking for a $97,859 increase for another commercial appraiser position. Currently, the office only has one and that individual is eligible for retirement.

"That leaves me with a vulnerability or a liability to the county because the bulk of our value is in community and industrial properties. It's not the bulk of properties, but it has more value," Dorey said.

The office is currently below 1998 staffing levels, according to Dorey, down six positions. The Department of Revenue audited the office and informed Dorey that she is short at least one appraiser who can value commercial and industrial properties.

"If not fully staffed, it is impossible for the assessor to complete deadlines outlined in law," states the budget increase request. "This will result in a delay of certifying values to every taxing district which negatively impacts each of them, including Lewis County. The DOR recommends an increase in the assessor's staffing levels."

A majority of the staff is new to the office. A recurring issue is that once an appraiser goes through the one-year training at the county, the employees find higher-paying work, often in another county. According to Dorey, there are nine former Lewis County employees who now work in Thurston County because they can average $1,000 more a month there.

"The problem is the employees I have, I can't hire them off the street unless they've worked in another assessor's office because they have no training," she said. "When we train them after a year, Thurston County snaps them up. I can't hire them back because I can't compete with the wages."

The revaluation of parcels is mandatory, but new construction is not. The problem, according to Dorey, is that is where the taxing districts make their money.

"In order to make the county flush with its bills, it takes about $200 million of new construction each and every year," she said.

In 1998, new construction totaled $101 million, while in 2016 that number decreased to $71 million.

Dorey said her discretionary funds in the budget are limited.

"Years ago, the carcass was skinned to the bone and it was hauled off, so we have nothing that is fluff anywhere," she said. "We can't rob Peter to pay Paul, we don't have an overtime budget.... The only savings I ever get is when someone leaves and that's in salaries. Everything else is spent."

The office is behind the statutory reporting deadlines because of the inadequate staff numbers, according to Dorey.

Community Development

The preliminary budget for next year shows revenue in the amount of $1,862,055 and expenditures totaling $1,861,510. There are 16 full-time equivalent positions.

As departments were asked to stay at the 2017 adopted operating level and with increases to salaries and benefits, as well as rising interfund rates, community development would have to operate with $90,000 less next year.

To bridge the gap, the department has proposed an increase in permitting fees for 2018. The new fee schedule will be presented to the commissioners in November for a decision.

"So the question is, should we raise our revenue to cover our cost or should the commissioners transfer over more money from current expense to cover the cost of development?" Lee Napier, director of community development, said at the Thursday meeting.

The community development department took a 30 percent cut during the economic downturn in 2008 and has since brought back only two of those positions, according to Napier.

Along with building and planning, the community development department manages two county airports -- which have their own enterprise funds -- and also manages the county's permit center, which is the department's primary source of revenue.

The money generated from the permitting center can only be used for services used to review those permits.

The department also deals with code enforcement.

Programs not related to permitting include the voluntary stewardship program, which outlines an alternative approach to address Washington state's Growth Management Act requirements.

The Packwood Airport, overseen by the department, has a 2018 preliminary budget showing $173,666 in revenue and $173,317 in expenditures. The Ed Carlson Memorial South Lewis County Airport in Toledo has a 2018 preliminary budget with revenue in the amount of $3,269,241 and expenditures totaling $3,261,300. There is less that one full-time equivalent position. Larry Mason oversees both of the airports.

Packwood Airport was recently revamped to comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements, while the one in Toledo will soon see similar work.

Revenues from the airports are generated by fuel sales or by renting out hangers or ties for pilots. The Toledo airport has eight hangars and 15 tie downs.

The department is also the fiscal agent of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority and is responsible for implementing burn bans.

Public Health and Social Services

The county's public health and social services department is one of about 13 other counties that combine the two departments into one agency. Typically, in other counties, the departments are two standalone agencies, according to Director Danette York.

For public health, the 2018 preliminary budget has revenues in the amount of $2,576,481 and expenditures in the amount of $2,786,677, accounting for a use of reserves in the amount of $210,196. A total of $585,000 is shifted from the general fund to support what grants do not cover. The general fund money also helps support the animal control officer, a cost which is split with the sheriff's office.

There are 25.13 full-time equivalent positions.

Following a common theme, the majority of expenses is for personnel and interfund rates. Public health, much like roads, is broken up into many different projects, according to Butler.

The budget includes the nurse family partnership, immunizations, services for children with special needs, and emergency preparedness, among other environmental health topics like water quality and food.

One of the largest unfunded mandates in the department is that for tuberculosis and other communicable diseases that spread, like sexually transmitted diseases, measles and pertussis.

For tuberculosis, York said in the past one case would happen every three years. In the last two years, there have been three cases per year.

"It's a significant increase for us and it takes a lot of time for someone to respond to TB," she said.

Another soon-to-be unfunded mandate is for solid and hazardous waste. In the past, the department received grants from the state Department of Ecology that covered the cost for staff to do regulatory work. Now, with the lack of a state capital budget, all of the work that goes into mitigating solid and hazardous waste until a budget is approved, will not be paid for.

As for emergency preparedness, the services provided are not mandated, but are all grant funded.

"It's the only program where we actually receive more revenue than we have expenditures," York said.

As the commissioners look at non-mandated programs to reduce or eliminate, York said the largest cuts that can take place are ones that past commissioners had no interest in getting rid of ,like code enforcement.

Public health is looking at doing away with its immunization clinic in late 2018, which costs about $50,000 from general fund money to run. York said she didn't believe there would be a gap in services because local providers can administer shots, as well as pharmacies who now offer the service, like Walgreens.

The reason the program will likely close in late 2018 is because that's when the public health nurse working in the immunization clinic is set to retire.

For social services, the 2018 preliminary budget has revenue in the amount of $2,499,635 and expenditures in the amount of $2,663,578, accounting for the use of reserves in the amount of $163,943.

There are 5.02 full-time equivalent positions.

There's a $12,000 transfer from the general fund, while the remainder comes from grants, Butler said.

York explained there are several programs funded through a millage tax each year, which has to be spent on mental health or developmentally disabled individuals in the county.

Eighty-three percent of social services' budget is for professional service contracts the department oversees. Money is provided to local service agencies like Housing Resource Center, the Human Response Network, and Reliable Enterprises, among many others for services that help homeless people or at-risk individuals from becoming homeless.

At the end of 2018, there is an estimated $838,505 that will be left in the fund. York said some of that money may be used to bring in a consultant to help develop a five-year plan to address homelessness. Originally, the plan focused on a 10-year time frame, but that has now changed.

Programs under social services also include those targeting substance abuse and the DUI task force, among others.

Also included under the umbrella of public health and social services is the Lewis County Animal Shelter and the Veterans Relief Fund.

The animal shelter has a preliminary budget of $136,000 and expenditures in the amount of $378,200. There are 3.35 full time equivalent positions.

"This is very unique to our county that (the animal shelter) is under public health and social services," York said.

The majority of the shelter's work is offset by the general fund and donations that range from money to pet food. The shelter also periodically receives bequests from individuals who have passed. The bequests have been funneled into an account that will fund either a new building on the shelter's current property or a remodel of the existing shelter.

Although the county is not required to operate an animal shelter, there is a requirement that there needs to be one, so the county could contract the service out. However, York said she didn't see much of a benefit or cost savings measure by doing that.

Cities in Lewis County also contract with the animal shelter for the services, which is likely cheaper than opening a shelter of their own, according to York.

The veterans relief fund has a 2018 preliminary budget of revenue totaling $166,852 and expenditures in the amount of $180,632. There is less than one full time equivalent position.

The fund provides help to low-income, honorably discharged veterans by providing vouchers for rent, utilities and food.

Veterans can get up to $450 annually, with an additional $750 for rent. It is meant to be an emergency program, York said.

Money for the fund comes from a portion of timber excise tax and property tax.

----This story will be continued in the Thursday's edition.

___

(c)2017 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)

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