UPDATE: The County's 2013 preliminary budget may be seen here. That link came from the County's home page.
I went to the County presentation of the budget tonight. The goal was to describe the overall budget process for the county, on which they did a very good job. Especially since the budget is complex, balancing dedicated fund requirements against needs while working with an inconsistent cash flow, and a legal requirement to balance the overall budget.
Having dealt with multiple -- but much smaller -- governmental budgets over the years, I can see that the County has a seriously hard time balancing the budget against projected revenue. This is not an easy task, made harder by the economy, unfunded mandates from the Federal and state governments, rising fuel prices, labor union contracts, court decisions, unexpected expenses (like storm damage), Congressional actions, and other factors. Further, Federal and state grant funds are shrinking every year, as do materials and supplies, and other operating expenses. Cash flow and conservative fiscal planning can be and has been trumped by a judge on the other side of the state, or a bureaucrat in Washington, DC.
Or a President utterly indifferent to the economic impacts of his policies. Such as Obamacare, an impact which has not been assessed as yet. No one really knows. And there are three union contracts awaiting negotiation in 2013.
On the plus side, Walla Walla County ranks very high nationally on their return of investment, although that's a rather small amount compared to the overall budget. And the county is required by law to maintain a reserve equal to 25% of the annual budget. That's used for unexpected expenses, such as failed equipment, storm damages, or increased operating costs. So the commissioners are working hard to maintain a conservative fiscal approach while maintaining essential services and required services.
What appears to be the main misconception about the budget (aside from not understanding its complexity) is the thought that "They have all that money from property taxes!"
Not true. The county budget operates on a cash flow basis, often at odds with actual expenses. The Road Department is especially challenged, as they use cash on hand to leverage grants, but must work on a cost reimbursable basis. And a lot of the property taxes go to schools, cities, and other places. Most of it does not go to the County funds.
The meeting didn't get into the actual budgets; that's coming up in November and December. However, there is a $1.9 million shortfall between revenues and submitted budgets by the various County departments. The Commissioners are hoping to shave that $1.9 million without cutting jobs, and have made some efficiencies that will help. In the end, though, the options are stark: simply cut all of the budgets in some manner to remove that gap, raise property taxes some degree, or a combination of both. A difficult choice, given the County can't go into deficit spending like the Federal government can. Nor print more money.
The entire meeting was video taped, and will be posted on the County web site, hopefully with copies of the hand outs. I'll post a link when it is available.