Originally published in the Yellowstone County News on 8/21/15. by Evelyn Pyburn
BILLINGS — Yellowstone County’s budget will increase about 4 percent in fiscal year 2015-16. An overall mill reduction of 7.49 will mean that some properties owners will see a slight increase in their taxes, while others may see a slight reduction, said County Finance Director Kevan Bryan – it depends on where they are located. The number of mills dropped because taxable property values increased.
Most of the county’s budget growth came from new construction, a state allowance of two-thirds of one percent for inflation, and a 3.62 percent increase in state entitlement revenue.
County Commissioners held the first of two formal budget hearings on Tuesday. The second will be at 9:45 a.m. Sept. 1.
As County Commissioners discussed last week what the county budget will look like for 2015-16, a few disagreements emerged, along with a few jibes. In advancing cuts to their own department’s budget, Commissioner Jim Reno said he thought it would set a “tone” of what is expected of other departments. Commissioner Bill Kennedy responded that a “better precedence” might have been set had Reno not voted for what he called a “5 percent increase” in elected officials’ salaries.
Reno started the discussion session, last Thursday, saying that he has been listening to taxpayers who are worried about “taxes on their homes,” given the increased property valuations this year. As a gesture he suggested dropping the commissioners’ travel budget by $2000, from $9,500 to $7,500, each. Kennedy wanted to leave the budget as is, saying that if it isn’t used it would remain in the general fund – and besides, he said, it is the other two commissioners who travel to the Montana Association of County Commissioners’ meetings.
“If that is going to be your tone,” said Kennedy, “then it is going to be a long day.”
Reno started to question the “five percent” assertion, and then seemed to decide to drop the issue, and ended the exchange. In July, commissioners approved, in a two to one vote, to increase pay for elected officials by 2.5 percent on the base and 2.5 percent on longevity, after rejecting a proposed one percent increase because they said it would have meant that deputies would also have gotten only a one percent increase. Kennedy wanted only a one percent increase on the base.
Commissioner John Ostlund indicated that he agreed with Reno about setting a tone, and supported Reno’s recommendation to cut the commissioners’ travel budget.
Later in the day-long series of department head meetings, when commissioners unanimously agreed to quadruple funding for CASA, they got a resounding round of applause from everyone in the room.
Representatives of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) made the case that whenever they are able to get someone assigned to a minor to represent their best interests in the courts and elsewhere, outcomes are phenomenally good. But, they are only able to train and assign volunteers for about half the number of children who need representation. With 288 new cases this calendar year, “It’s an impossible decision we have to make,” as to which child to help when both desperately need the help.
Cass Stanton, CASA’s executive director, answered a question posed by Commissioner Reno, “What would it take to serve every child in Yellowstone County?”
Stanton said, ““Our system is beyond stressed; we need to double our budget, our staff, everything.” They have 100 volunteers, to serve 300 children, she said, going on to estimate a need for an annual investment of $326,000 through 2020. “That would allow us to assign a case volunteer to each child.”
Reno suggested the county double its current contribution of $40,000.
Kennedy said that there are 155,000 people in Yellowstone County, a dollar a head isn’t unreasonable, he said and suggested bumping it to $155,000, and he said they can revisit the issue each year at budget time through 2020. All three commissioners quickly agreed. Applause then erupted from those in the room including other county staff and community observers.
Riverstone Health Foundation asked for the commissioners’ support in building an addition to Riverstone Clinic. The addition will add 48 exam rooms to their existing 31, expanding the city-county health service’s capacity for staff as well as more patients, as well as bringing greater efficiencies to their operation. The addition will add 30,000 square feet. Once completed, they would build another connecting structure between the new and the old. The entire project will cost about $11 million. Riverstone has applied for a $1 million federal grant to help fund the project, and they have raised $400,000 internally. The balance will be raised through philanthropy over the next 24 months.
Steve Wahrlich, a Billings businessman who serves on the foundation board, said that the new facilities will allow the clinic to operate more as a wellness center, which is the direction of health care, today.
Commissioners asked about staffing the expansion, and were told that essentially the staffing is already in place, they are just functioning in extremely cramped quarters.
The Foundation asked for a contribution of $25,000 this year and $25,000 next year from the county. Commissioner Kennedy said that he thought that that was a modest request. All three commissioners indicated support.
County Director of Finance Kevan Bryan told commissioners that it looks like the mill levy will be six to seven mills less, given the 11 percent increase in taxable property valuations the county experienced this year. The county gets a boost from a permitted inflation increase of two-thirds of one percent and from new tax revenue generated by new construction. He pointed out that the county is also getting a boost in gross proceeds taxes paid by Signal Peak, the coal mine at Roundup, for the production they do into Yellowstone County.
Bryan also told commissioners that he did not believe it would be necessary to hire an assistant for his position as finance director, a suggestion made at the time that Bryan was hired earlier this year. He said that his office and the county treasurer’s office could share a full time entry level accountant, shifting “things everybody is doing that can be done by someone without the background.”
Commissioners were split on a request from Big Sky Economic Development for an 11 percent increase in revenue. Director Steve Arveschoug said that they wanted to collect their full levy (3.37 mills) which they have not been getting for several years. Last year their levy of 3.09 netted them $938,000 in tax revenues.
Arveschoug talked about BSED activities saying, “We are building quite a remarkable community … we make quite a contribution to our community.” He explained that for every $1 they get from county taxpayers, they leverage into $3 from other state and federal governmental entities, in fees and grants. More revenue is needed to continue their programs, he said. Each year they have accomplished more without adding to their staff of 18, he said, “We have been very responsible with our resources…we have shown great restraint over the years . . . I know ten or 11 percent sounds like a lot.”
“It is a lot,” said Reno, who suggested a 2.5 percent increase in revenue instead.
Ostlund suggested 3.5 percent.
Kennedy said, “You folks are very short-sighted.” He said that labor recruitment is the top priority of the community. “We didn’t suffer the negative impacts of the recession, because we have been investing in our community.”
Ostlund quipped that Kennedy wanted to give deputies a one percent raise, and give economic development 11 percent.
Arveschoug interjected, “You aren’t giving 10 percent raises you are adding to program value.”
Kennedy moved that BSED be given their full levy authority of 3.15 mills. There was no support from the other commissioners.
Reno and Ostlund then compromised on a 3 percent increase (about $28,000). Bryan noted that it was the greatest increase in revenue for BSED since 2010.
Other agencies seeking increases in funding included the Mental Health Center, which because of changes in how the state funds mental health, is confronting a half million dollar shortfall. The commissioners agreed to allocate $120,000 to the Center.
They also agreed to hire two additional technicians for the IT department, whose time can be used to provide back up for technicians who serve Metra Park, the Detention Center, the county attorney’s office, and to allow training for back up to key IT people, in case something should happen to them. Current staff are at times overwhelmed by the demands upon them, and not having back up is a precarious situation for Metra Park, the jail, and for the county in general.
They also agreed to Metra Park’s request to hire another “blue shirt,” as the facility faces increased workloads as additional events are being added to the schedule.
In looking at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and discussing its needs with Sheriff Mike Linder, Commissioner Ostlund said that they need to start a fund to eventually build the women’s addition to the jail, a levy for which was rejected by Yellowstone County voters earlier this year. It will eventually have to be built, he said, “You have a crisis down there and we need to fix it.”
Commissioners agreed to $1.6 million in proposed expenditures for maintenance issues at the jail, including roof repairs, and an HVAC system at the sheriff’s office.
They urged Detention Facility Director Sam Bofto to fill eight vacant detention officer positions as soon as possible, since that would be less expensive than paying overtime. Bofto explained that they have been having trouble finding suitable applicants for the jobs. Commissioners said that he may have to seek marketing assistance in advertising the positions, but filling those positions is vital not only to reduce costs, but to keep from losing more staff due to burn-out.
Bryan summarized some of basic aspects of the budget saying that all county-owned buildings will see some work from capital fund expenditures in 2015-16. The number of county employees stands at 427 compared to 423 last year. And, he added, “Your mill levy is about the pace of average growth.”
Commissioners will adopt a final budget on Sept. 1, 9:45 a.m. meeting.