-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – If Missoula County wants to maintain the status quo in the new fiscal year and keep services as they are today, with no additions, it will need to generate an addition $1.1 million.
That’s according to figures released Thursday by county staff as commissioners plunged into the budgeting cycle for Fiscal Year 2020.
Yet instead of projecting incoming revenues, such as mill values and property taxes, which won’t be certified by the state until a later date, the county is taking a new approach to the process this year and staying clear of making forecasts.
“Rather than guessing what our revenue forecast would be and subsequently trying to align revenue with expenditures, we’re going to try something a little different this year,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.
“We’re focusing on what we’re calling our ‘sustainment budget.’ It allows us to look at what it costs Missoula County to provide and deliver the same level of services you’re enjoying right now in the community.”
Last year’s expenditures totaled roughly $182.8 million, and they’re expected to tick up to $183.9 million this year based upon various cost increases, ranging from power to wages. That represents a $1.1 million increase just to sustain what was included in last year’s budget, with no additions.
Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer, said the largest individual budget category in any county stems from personnel. He has placed this year’s personnel costs at around $70.6 million.
Because roughly 85 percent of the county’s 867 employees belong to a bargaining unit, he said, personnel costs are projected to increase due to wages, health care and other factors.
“The drivers behind this increase are the increases in health insurance, the sheriff’s retirement system, the public employees retirement system, salary increases based upon the different agreements with the bargaining units, and a wage increase for entry level employees,” said Czorny
County staff also cited cost increases in operations, including $2.2 million at Partnership Heath Center, which isn’t funded by property taxes but by federal money. Costs at Community Planning Services will increase around $100,000 due to the rent on its new downtown building, and operational costs for Relationship Violence Services are expected to tick up as well.
Add it all up and the county must bring in an additional $1.1 million.
“We allowed for the fact that expenses will go forward, because we know things like heat, light and power – all those costs will go up – and personnel costs will go up,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief operating officer. “We looked at it as if we’re not going to take in any more money and our revenue is going to be the same as last year, because we don’t know what the new value of a mill will be.”
During last year’s budgeting process, both the city and the county had projected revenues early in the cycle, and both were shocked when the state released its certified taxable values.
Those values came in far lower than expected, prompting both governments to rework their projections and their budgets. It ultimately led to a tax increase.
Adding to this year’s challenges, the county will likely see revenue reductions in key categories. That includes around $408,000 in Payments in Lieu of Taxes from the federal government, and $250,000 in lost revenue from the state for housing state inmates at the county detention center.
“Making it up is a difficult question,” Czorny said. “We’re trying to narrow those goalposts right now. It’s going to take a combination of budget reductions and a potential tax increase.”
That’s merely a projection, Czorny said, since the county won’t receive certified taxable values until a later time. When it does, it will take a deeper dive into a number of budget requests, both large and small.
Justice Court is seeking $1,800 for new software while the County Attorney’s Office is seeking $60,000 for one personnel promotion. The Elections Office is asking for $557,000 for new voting equipment, and the Sheriff’s Department is seeking $280,000 for a special duties unit.
“We take seriously our role as stewards of the public trust and public financial resources,” said Strohmaier. “Everything we’re talking about in the budget today and the weeks to follow needs to tier back to the mission of Missoula County.”
That mission includes “providing quality public services to protect and enhance the well being of the people, communities and environment of Missoula County.”
“If there’s anything you see in the budget that doesn’t meet that goal, we want to hear about it,” Strohmaier said.
Public comment on the county’s proposed budget will remain open deep into August.