County expected to cut new capital spending

Revenues will instead pay debts, maintain existing infrastructure

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Clark County commissioners are expected to approve an updated 2011-2012 budget Tuesday evening.

The supplemental budget will reflect the commissioners’ No. 1 capital funding priority — paying off debt — and while there are no surprises in the county budget, commissioners know things are subject to change depending on what state lawmakers do to bridge a projected $2 billion gap in the state budget.

Clark County Deputy Administrator Glenn Olson told commissioners last week that county staffers are waiting to see the fallout from cuts made during the current special 30-day Legislative session.

“We’ll probably be back in budget talks after the holidays,” Olson said.

Budget Director Jim Dickman prepared the budget recommendations without significant changes in most county operations, said Mary Keltz, the county’s spokeswoman.

General fund revenues and expenses are tracking closely with the budget commissioners adopted a year ago, but the general fund does have to cover some expenses for public health and the Clark County Fairgrounds, Keltz said. Dickman has told commissioners they need to figure out a long-term solution for those funds.

Commissioners tentatively agreed to the proposed budget in a work session last month.

The biggest change to the budget under Dickman’s proposal? Real estate excise taxes, which are charged on property sales, will be redirected from the county road fund to pay off debt on county buildings.

Commissioners have agreed that honoring existing debt is their top capital funding priority, followed by preserving assets (facilities, roads, parks) and acquiring additional assets.

In 2012, $5.4 million in real estate excise tax revenue will go toward paying off debt on five county buildings and energy-efficiency investments in county buildings.

The debt payments are for the Center for Community Health, the Public Service Center, the Clark County Jail Work Center, the juvenile detention center and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office West Precinct.

Originally, real estate taxes were projected to pay for new capital investments such as roads and parks.

The supplemental budget will require the public works department to reschedule projects, Keltz said.

The revenue stream from real estate excise taxes, which are calculated as a percentage of the sale, has steadily dropped along with property values and sales.

Annual revenues from excise taxes fell dramatically from $12.5 million in 2006 to $3.7 million in 2010. At the same time, flexible capital spending decreased from 21 percent of capital revenues to 12 percent of capital revenues. The ongoing stress forced commissioners, who set county policy, to affirm capital priorities.

By law, the county has to have a balanced budget.

Last December, commissioners adopted a two-year total budget of $887.5 million.

Of that total budget, the general fund, projected at $280 million for the next two years, has been cut by $62 million since the 2007-08 budget.

Approximately 70 percent of the total budget comes from federal and state sources and from fees and penalties tied to specific services; commissioners have some flexibility with the general fund.

About two-thirds of the general fund goes for public safety, including the sheriff’s office and county jail.

Commissioners will meet 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St. There will be a public hearing before commissioners formally approve the supplemental budget.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice;http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov;stephanie.rice@columbian.com.