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County board limits preliminary budget to 4 percent 'growth increase'

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Four percent or less.

That's the message Hubbard County commissioners gave to their department heads Wednesday at a special board meeting to start the budget process.

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They limited "growth increases" to 4 percent and repeatedly cautioned against calling them "budget cuts." Although many departments asked for less, "the big three" asked for considerably more.

Sheriff Gary Mills, Social Services Director Daryl Bessler and Dave Olsonawski, county engineer and public works coordinator, were all summoned to the board meeting to hear the bad news, which some took better than others.

"To keep this from being a never-ending journey, we need to set a goal," said Hubbard County board member Lyle Robinson.

Board members were instructed by auditor Pam Heeren that they could set a preliminary levy that can decrease but not increase.. Four percent was that starting figure.

"Government cannot simply grow faster than everything else," Robinson said.

Mills and his staff were first to receive the bad news. The sheriff's department had requested a 17.2 percent increase in its budget; the dispatch center requested nearly a 50 percent increase; corrections requested 5.3 percent more and the Sentence to Service program had requested 5.37 percent.

In part, those requests were for extra staff, rising fuel costs and services such as court security that had been thrust on the department from outside areas.

"How are we going to handle the increase in gas prices or the increase in equipment?" a frustrated Mills questioned the board.

"Same as you do at home," Robinson replied.

""I don't have to take a trip," Mills responded. "Our deputies have to be out there... Tell me how I'm going to handle the overtime? If you have an emergency at your house do I say I can't send a deputy until 8 in the morning?"

Much of the law enforcement budget can be paid for under a new special levy allowed by the Legislature, which imposed 3.9 percent levy limits on counties and cities last spring just before adjourning.

The levy limits are intended to control growth for a three-year period. But certain items can be levied above those limits and law enforcement salaries, benefits and insurance premiums are among those items.

Commissioners have balked at using the special levies because they affect taxpayers the same, regardless of what they're called. Heeren said she'd been advised by the Department of Revenue that if counties don't use the special levies, they wouldn't be available for the remaining two years of the legislatively imposed limits.

"It's simply a way of freeing up money so you can spend more," Robinson told Mills. "We're not going to do it."

"You call it spending, I call it running a sheriff's department," Mills said. "We have to serve the people of Hubbard County and I think law enforcement is pretty darn important to them."

Commissioners also questioned the number of correctional officers when the jail is averaging 30 inmates a day.

"I think you're overmanned," commissioner Don Carlson said.

Mills tried to explain Department of Corrections standards that mandate certain numbers of inmate- to-officer ratios. He went unheard.

Robinson and other board members discussed examples of what they considered to be wasteful spending. Those examples surfaced at a county auction Sunday. Numerous items were sold that had minimal use while the county owned them. Two rescue snowmobiles were auctioned that had only been driven 1,200 miles in 10 years.

But the discussion also turned to whether deputies should be driving SUVs to patrol the county, when cheaper squad cars would get better mileage.

"It's gotten to be a big fad," said commissioner Dick Devine. "Maybe we've had too much money."

Mills was instructed to trim more than $200,000 from his budget and report back to the board.

Social Services director Daryl Bessler reacted much like Mills when he was given the bad news. His department has been dipping into its reserve funds for years to make ends meet, to the tune of $1.2 million since 1998. He requested 34 percent more funds this year to replenish that reserve.

He said he won't be able to cut services because demand is going up. "We should have $2 million in reserves by December 2009," he said. That reserve fund now sits at $1.5 million.

"If we continue to spend our reserves the amount (the county will eventually owe) will get larger down the road," he cautioned. "Sooner or later the turkeys are coming home to roost."

Social services traditionally has set aside half of its county costs in reserves for emergency use because of the way money flows in and out of the department. Payments have to be made while the department awaits state or federal reimbursement. That necessitates the reserve, Bessler said.

"A reserve isn't logical if you have other needs," Robinson said. "We have to focus on the health and welfare of the people of the county. Why would a department that doesn't need it stack it away when others need it?"

That logic seemed to trouble Bessler, who said he would be spending more of his reserves to get by in tough economic times, with increasing needs for services coming this winter when people struggle to heat their homes and get by financially.

Olsonawski was stoic when he heard his request for 35 percent more funds (translated to a 14 percent levy increase) wouldn't be granted. He needs to trim $300,000 from his budget, or 10 percent of his levy increase.

"You're taking it from county road construction," he said matter-of-factly.

But the board itself had to bite the bullet, too. Although commissioners left proposed $500 pay hikes in their $181,181 budget, they admitted they needed to cut their own 5.1 percent requested increase as a good example.

They also discussed cost-saving measures.

"Why should three or four of us attend township meetings and collect per diem when one could go?" they asked themselves.

"You could still go," Heeren said. "Just don't charge for it."

Devine objected to cutting the raises since "we've given county employees 3 percent raises every year since I can remember." He said the county shouldn't decrease salaries to the point where no one would want to serve.

Commissioners, in salaries and benefits, are budgeted in 2008 to receive more than $36,200 annually. The board tabled a request in 2009 to spend $11,000 in "travel and meals."

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