Commission begins work on annual budget

 

Ross Johnson photo The County Commission opens its budget workshop at the Aquatic Center on March 28.

Ross Johnson photo
The County Commission opens its budget workshop at the Aquatic Center on March 28.

Much of the business of the White Pine County Board of Commissioners at its twice monthly meeting March 23 foreshadowed the board’s approaching annual budget workshop.

First, Commissioner Mike Coster paid homage to the late Margaret Bath.

“She was one of the most kind and giving residents of the community,” Coster said.

Road department director Bill Miller reported that state wildlife agents had advised his maintenance crews that they were disturbing sage-grouse leks.

“Nevada Department of Wildlife is starting to knock on our door about sage-grouse,” Miller said. “I’m upset that they were on 4-wheelers, rounding up hens and trying to put GPS collars on them. Now that’s harassment.”

In its capacity as the fire commission, the board approved a transfer of $18,000 to the Fire District fund to cover the cost of the inter-local fire protection agreement with the City of Ely. Commissioner Laurie Carson dissented.

Elko County Commissioner Demar Dahl made an appearance and solicited the commission for $5,000 to be used for lobbyists for his organization, the Nevada chapter of the American Lands Council, a nonprofit working to transfer western federal public lands to local control. The commission agreed to consider the issue.

“We have the land, but we may not have the water,” Board Chair Gary Perea added.

Brittany Carter of the Lund Grade School gave a presentation to the commission concerning the future of the school. Built in 1915, the school became a part of White Pine County School District in 1935. Carter asked the commission if they would accept the donation of the building to the county for use as a community center. Recent school district budget decisions considered the possibility of its sale. Carter valued the building at $110,000.

Carson wanted to wait until after this year’s budget is finalized on June 30.

“We’re going to make hard decisions,” Commissioner Richard Howe said. “But we’ve got to stand firm and do what’s best for White Pine County. Some people will be happy, some won’t.”

In May 2015 county finance director Elizabeth Frances proposed reducing the amount of ending fund balance the county utilized by $125,000 each year, resulting in a balanced budget by fiscal year 2022, instead of the two to three years desired by the commission.

At that time, the county was using about $800,000 of the balance to move toward a balanced budget. Frances’ strategy would therefore budget $675,000 to utilize this year, and $550,000 the next. In February, Frances reported near that mark, at $673,000, but the commission wanted it as close as possible to $400,000.

The commission opened its annual budget workshop on March 28. The workshop is a open public meeting for the commission to discuss its budget plans department by department, as well as an opportunity for each department to present current requests and defend expenditures.

Frances opened the session by educating the commissioners on the task that lay before them.

“You’re going to be doing more or doing the same with less,” Frances said. “That’s how we’re going to balance the budget.”

Frances recommended cutting $600,000 to $800,000 to get a balanced budget. She also  reiterated her scaled reduction strategy.

“As the mines are cutting back, sales revenues are going to go down,” Frances said.

The county may also have to issue a tax refund to the Robinson Mine.

“Travel will show as a new request,” she added. “It makes it more apparent. Travel should be okayed and identified every year.”

Frances expressed her desire for the creation of a full-time grant writer position.

“A good grant writer will pay for themselves with the amount of money they can bring into the county,” she said.

Frances also requested an in-house information technology engineer.

“We need to come out of the dinosaur age,” Carson said. “We’ve always had a knee jerk reaction.”

“We need to grow,” Frances said. “There will continue to be a demand for it and we need to be proactive. We need to keep our I.T. equipment current.”

Carson proposed the creation of a county manager position.

“It’s consolidation and coordination,” Carson said.

“That’s going to be a problem,” Perea said. “He’s going to have a target on his back. This individual is going to take all of the hits, all the time.”

Sheriff Dan Watts voiced his support for the position.

“That’s the position he gets hired for and gets paid for,” Watts said. “Right now, there’s no oversight and no accountability. Department heads can run amok. I’m not saying that’s what they’re doing, but they can.”

“I agree 100 percent,” Carson said. “We walk a fine line. Individually, commissioners can’t tell department heads what to do.”

“A county manager is not viable right now,” Howe said. “Working with the department heads is just like working a ladder. I think putting it on the back burner is a good idea. Right now we have a lot of other needs. Right now it’s a luxury.”

Watts asked for about $4,500 to replace broken hinges on the doors of his jail. The county jail currently houses 45 to 50 inmates per day, and has housed as many as 70. It’s official capacity is 40.

Watts also explained that the sheriff’s department contracts with the city for all law enforcement services, but the county pays all expenses and utilities for the municipal court. The board also discussed the possibility of hiring a full-time emergency vehicle mechanic, or contracting with a private company for such services.

Fire District Chief Brett Waters described that his department earns the lowest salaries in the state of Nevada.

“A lot of salaries in the state are high,” Perea said. “So I understand both sides. I’m amazed at what some firefighters in Clark County make.”

Waters explained he is currently waiting to hear if his department will receive a $30,000 Stryker Emergency Medical Services grant.

“Everything else is pretty much covered under grants,” Waters said. “We’ve been very successful getting grants.”

Waters is also working to sell about $35,000 worth of old equipment.

After the public safety portion of the workshop concluded, Frances reminded the commission of her official recommendations.

“I have to say this,” Frances said. “This is not a sustainable budget. We cannot continue to deficit spend in this manner, we just can’t. Even with the estimated increases, we’re still deficit spending.”

“If Medicare and Medicaid were paying what they’re supposed to, we’d be taken care of,” Perea said.

“I’ve asked the governor for no more unfunded mandates,” Carson said.

“Baker Ambulance is going to the national park during the summer,” Perea said. “I’m thinking about asking the National Park Service for some compensation.”

“We provide Nye County with some fire and EMS services,” Waters said. “I’ve asked them to put together a proposal for how to pay for that.”

County Clerk Nichole Baldwin explained that the budget for her department’s salaries has been cut, but that she still needs to promote one of her deputy clerks to chief deputy clerk.

Baldwin also asked for about $2,200 in overtime for the work her department completes administering the county’s elections.

“Elections are 18-hour days or longer,” Baldwin said. “The polls are open for 12 hours, and we’re there before and long after.”

Since this is a presidential election year, Baldwin will accommodate a larger than normal voter turnout.  She has also been using a ten year old laptop computer to process election results.

“I need a new laptop,” she added.

The commission continued the budget workshop for the next two mornings, hearing requests and reports from departments such as public health, social services, the district court,  public works, parks and recreation, the library, the airport, and the towns of Ruth, Lund and McGill.

The board next meets on Wednesday, April 13 at the County Aquatic Center at 9 a.m.

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