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No budget is perfect

Jul 14, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

In our county this year, the big decisions weren't taken lightly

Another fiscal year budget is on the books for Fremont County. Statistically, we'll be laying out about $1,000 for every resident. That's $40 million -- insignificant in the gargantuan, wasteful realms of the federal budget, but amounting to every buck the county will spend in our little corner of the world.

Beyond the mathematical conclusion, the end of the budget process probably leaves just about everyone dissatisfied. To some there's always too much money slipping through the fingers of those who must untie the purse strings. To others, those strings are not so much untied as loosened, and then only briefly.

This year's budget requests, budget hearings, budget deliberations and budget approval displayed the full pattern. Few requesting entities got all they wanted, and those that did see increases tended to be on the small end of the tapering column of funding. So it goes, has gone, and will go.

There is a significant, broad-based piece of generosity in the new spending plan, a significant raise for Fremont County employees. It's a decisive reversal of a stagnant take-home pay structure that will be welcomed by the county work force.

Among the "big asks" this year were from one entity that is operated by Fremont County (the ambulance department) and one that isn't (Riverton Regional Airport).

Each had a strong case to make. The former can't meet its expenses and still offer the services the citizens of the county both request and deserve. The latter has been beset by problems outside its control that threaten the service of which our county is equally deserving.

It would have been bold and encouraging if the county had opted to increase its contribution to airport operations in light of the probable fact that money to help a regional airline maintain reliable service will be required in the near future. We offer the strong suggestion that every significant government entity in Fremont County begin to consider how it might contribute money that effort.

But it's hard to argue with the county's decision to step forward with more money to the ambulance department. It is a county agency. The airport isn't.

And the added $165,000 the county opted to give the ambulance department puts it in position to observe operations, monitor performance and demand results in ways that simply wouldn't be possible with the airport, which is an entity of the City of Riverton.

Plus, the money problems with the ambulance department have been well known and quantified for some years now. That's a bit different with the airport, whose service crisis is very real but also very new. It hasn't even been a year since new federal requirements plunged Riverton Regional and virtually every other airport of similar size in the West into emergency mode.

There might be other ways for the airport situation to be improved or resolved that don't have anything to do with county government. The hoped-for action is legislation by Congress overturning the administrative rule by the Federal Aviation administration on pilot experience that is causing the problem. Some members of Congress are looking into it.

If that were to happen, the airport would feel less pressure to solicit added funding from outside sources. Commissioners left airport funding unchanged this year, ready to see how the air service picture plays out in the months ahead.

Those are just two of many interests competing for that $40 million. Virtually any of the others could tell its own story of need, shortage, ambition and longing. Rarely is a budget decision made because fiscal officials don't like something. Usually they are made in an atmosphere of liking too much.

At that point it becomes a process of priorities. Our county commissioners -- three of whom must face voters this year -- have gone through that process and completed it. None of them -- not one -- would claim that the fiscal year 2015 budget is a perfect plan. But it is a defensible one. And when it comes to local government spending, defensible is about as good as it's ever going to get.

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