County budget more flush than expected

MONTESANO — Frugal spending practices and extra timber money at the end of last year helped boost Grays Harbor County’s reserves to $4.87 million, about $870,000 more than what the county expected the reserve to be to start the year.

During a Monday morning meeting, Budget Director Brenda Sherman provided an end-of-the-year report to the newly-installed Board of County Commissioners.

Even if the county hadn’t taken a controversial $750,000 road levy shift that boosted property taxes on residents within city limits, the county still would have had an extra $130,000 in the bank that wasn’t budgeted.

The reserves put the county on firmer footing compared to a year ago, when the county had about $2.8 million in the bank before a series of layoffs, building closures and other cuts took hold.

Those cuts reduced the county’s salaries and benefits by $697,676 last year, Sherman said. Even so, the county still spent $17.4 million in salaries and benefits last year.

And although the sales tax was down by $218,338 last year and court fines and fees was down by $284,929, Sherman said that was saved by a $430,000 timber windfall that came in November, along with $300,000 from the second installment of the sale of the Oakhurst property, which was purchased by Mark Reed Hospital District for its new hospital. One last payment from Mark Reed is expected in 2014.

For its operating budget in 2012, the county had $26.092 million in revenue and $23.9 million in expenditures, allowing the boost to reserves. This year, the county has budgeted for $24.374 million in revenue and $24.333 million in expenditures.

The county commissioners imposed a 3.5 percent cut on all offices and departments, but have given elected officials and department heads the full year to figure out how to implement it.

At this point, the only pink slip handed out was to a secretary at the Juvenile Detention Center. Commission Chairman Herb Welch said the 30-day layoff notices is supposed to take effect on Feb. 4, although he has no yet heard back from the judges or the detention center manager.

Last week, the commissioners did authorize the detention center to hire two vacant juvenile detention officers, which was in the facility’s budget. However, on Monday, they postponed a decision to promote an officer to a senior position, to hire a new probation officer and to promote a position to director of court services. Those positions had not been budgeted.

Commissioner Frank Gordon said he had “cash flow concerns” and that they will look at those positions again in the second quarter.

Commissioner Wes Cormier said it’s also important to him to talk to the judges first. The judges oversee the juvenile detention budget.

While the general fund may have a healthier reserve, the road levy shift had put the county’s Road Fund to its lowest level since 2009.

The road fund, typically used for maintenance purposes on the county’s roads, has a reserve balance of $3.7 million, about half a million dollars lower than it was last year.

Road Engineer Russ Esses says he’s been keeping a close eye on his $17.5 million budget, which includes $5 million in road construction projects this year along with $8.8 million in maintenance programs. The budget also includes $3.4 million in state and federal grants.

“At this point, I have four vacant positions on the road crew and if we hadn’t taken the levy shift, we would probably be filling those positions now,” Esses said.

Esses noted the Road Fund saves about $600,000 by not filling those positions, the savings coming from the salaries, benefits and the costs it would have meant for those employees to run equipment.

“What it means is we won’t do as much road projects,” Esses said. “Instead of chip sealing 60 miles of roads, we’re doing 50 miles. … Instead of mowing the grass three times a year, maybe it’s twice. There’s less ditch cleaning and less work generally.”