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Commission works to cut deficit in half

Jun 13, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Last week, Fremont County commissioners agreed to cut their $2.2 million deficit for the 2018 fiscal year in half by Thursday, when they're required to advertise a proposed budget to the public.

As cuts become deeper, they're also becoming much more difficult for the commission, and chairman Travis Becker said last week he expected "cussing and fussing" during this week's two-day budget session.

However, the process became a lot easier by Tuesday morning, when Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese, who also serves as the county's chief budget officer, announced that rollover money from the 2016 fiscal year now puts the deficit at $1.7 million.

The county board spent the bulk of Tuesday debating more cuts and has scheduled a special meeting on Wednesday to continue budget talks.

Freese has asked department heads and elected officials to be on-call during these two days for emergency conferences about their budgets.

Treasurer Scott Harnsberger has said there should be $3.7 million available in savings to backfill deficits over the next two years. However, if the county were to spend all of that money by the end of the 2019 fiscal year, only some money from the Road Construction Fund would be available to offset any deficits -- assuming Wyoming's economy hasn't rebounded by that point.

In May, the county board had tentatively planned to tap its capital revolving fund -- a sort of internal bank -- for $1.2 million, its investments for $250,000, the road construction fund for $400,000, and the health insurance fund for $550,000.

When the budget session began Tuesday morning, the county slashed its $5,500 membership fee to the Fremont Association of Governments, thereby planning to drop out of the intergovernmental agency that was created to coordinate grant-writing.

"I think we used to get a lot out of it, but I don't think we get a lot out of it anymore," Commissioner Ray Price said.

In total, the county board cut another $8,670 from its own $346,000 budget Tuesday morning after also slashing its travel budget.

"We'll pick up our own tabs as much as we can," Becker said.

After the county board announced plans for more cuts, county planner Steve Baumann voluntarily cut another $1,350 from his budget, while Freese cut another $3,416 from her budget and deputy clerk Margy Irvine cut $2,335 from the elections budget.

Tensions

When Becker briefly floated the idea of eliminating the University of Wyoming's Extension office in Fremont County last week, he earned a rebuke from Alex Malcolm, who heads that organization and criticized the notion that if a county service is not statutorily obligated to exist, it's inherently expendable.

"That's not right," he said. "That affects a lot of people."

Malcolm argued that elimination of UW programs is only likely to create more problems for the county budget.

"We keep people (in Fremont County) and keep people out of juvenile court," he said. "The positive side of our program really benefits this county as a whole."

After being asked to make another $150,000 in cuts, newly hired library director Janette McMahon emphasized a similar risk of more reduction when she met with commissioners on Tuesday.

"Poverty and literacy have a direct connection," she said at a meeting with the library board last week. "We have to provide literacy opportunities."

At this point, further cuts to the county's libraries are likely to result in cuts to maintenance, she said.

"I don't know what we're going to do if we have to cut our facilities budget," McMahon said. "We have a 32-year-old boiler in Riverton running this thing."

McMahon said she hopes the libraries can work with the county board to possibly reduce costs through "more collaboration" on maintenance issues.

McMahon has worked to have more one-on-one meetings with the commissioners since taking over the library system.

"We can't move forward without everyone's input," she said. "We don't work in a bubble."

Commissioner Clarence Thomas said Tuesday that he'd like to see the libraries target more private donations as county appropriations slide. McMahon agreed that was a possibility but said fundraising for facilities isn't feasible.

Andy Frey, superintendent of the Fremont County Solid Waste Disposal District, told commissioners Tuesday that his board was considering giving raises to staff.

Both Becker and Commissioner Larry Allen urged that board to reconsider.

No employee whose budget comes under the authority of the county is likely to receive a raise during the economic downturn, and Becker said it "would not be prudent" for the solid waste district to have a separate standard.

However, solid waste board chairman Mark Moxley said the district continues "to lose good people because our wages are relatively low."

"I think it's incumbent upon us to review our wage structure on a fairly regular basis to ensure we remain competitive," he said.

Fine-tooth comb vs.

big ax

Thomas said he'd rather target the large chunks of money that are being spent by programs like the transportation department, rather than eliminating smaller programs like the UW Extension office, which already has proposed an 18 percent cut for the 2018 fiscal year.

"We're not going to get (a balanced budget) by nitpicking these programs. These programs are needed for this community, and that community is one that we need to serve," Thomas said. "Can the county go without those road improvements? I would say yes."

Programs like the UW Extension office, he said, are need because they "make (the youth) better leaders."

"We already lack a lot of leadership tools for our youth," he said.

However, Freese said there's still a lot that can be accomplished by going by through all budgets line-by-line.

"I was here back in the '90s; it doesn't feel like $50 goes a long way until you do it. We took a million out of the budget by doing it that way," she said. "I have (departments) call me and say 'I can only give back $1,000.' That's great because $1,000 times 30 is $30,000."

Outside funding

The county has already cut $95,000 from social services for the upcoming fiscal year, and also nixed a $50,000 subsidy for Riverton Regional Airport after employees there were given a 2 percent raise.

"I'm pretty firm in my belief that if they were going to give raises, the county can't contribute the $50,000 to the airport for general operations," said Allen, who serves as airport liaison for the county board. "Our employees deserve raises too, but they understand we're in a budget crunch."

The county board has committed for a second year to a $200,000 revenue guarantee for Denver Air Connection, helping ensure the fledgling company breaks even while it works to establish a local market. Allen said investing in Denver Air -- which began air service to the county in July 2016 -- is "a must" given that Riverton's only other carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, cut its of weekly flights in half this month amid financial troubles.

"My thought is that (Great Lakes) is fixing to close their doors," Allen said. "If we don't take stock in (Denver Air), Riverton will end up as a general aviation resource. ... That's such a waste of a resource."

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2017-10-19

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