Clark County Commissioners approve budget update

More will be needed from reserve fund to cover shortfall

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County commissioners unanimously approved a budget update Tuesday morning that answered some lingering financial questions that cropped up in the past few months.

The updated budget brings the county's general fund expenditures to $298.7 million for the 2013-14 budget cycle, an increase of $3.8 million. That means the county still intends to use cash out of its reserve fund come December 2014 to cover its expenses; revenues remain at $289.1 million for the biennium.

The county had already planned to dip into its reserve fund during the 2013-14 budget. Last week, the county's budget staff explained it was expected as part of a bigger reconfiguration plan to get the county on track through 2018.

While the expenditures approved Tuesday increase the amount needed to cover the shortfall, most of them are one-time expenses.

The general fund will pay just under $1 million to retire a line of credit that funds operations at the Clark County Event Center at The Fairgrounds exhibition hall, the Dr. Jack Giesy Arena and the county fair.

The original plan was to carry the debt forward with the hopes of more profitable events in the future.

Commissioners also approved purchasing a new software system for the county's permit department. The county has discussed updating its antiquated system for months. The county's general fund will pay $1.5 million for the new system, while other county funds will chip in to cover the total budgeted cost of $4.7 million. The county is still out to bid on the new software.

Other changes will create continuing expenditures for the county. They include $250,000 this biennium so the county court system can hire another full-time court commissioner and $100,000 to hire a support staff member for the new commissioner's office.

The county is also expecting a $648,000 reduction in revenues as the commissioners voted to eliminate parking fees at county parks earlier this month.

While the general fund, which commissioners have direct control over for law, justice and internal support operations, is declining, the total of all county funds will be $6.7 million more than expected through 2014.

Jim Dickman, the county budget director, said the extra funds resulted from the county's separation of a regional service network, an account change this budget cycle and retiring debt on some county projects.

Commissioner David Madore said he was pleased with the changes brought forward by the county's budget staff.

"I'm very pleased to see the health of our county," Madore said, before laud

ing the changes at Tuesday's meeting. "Citizens are getting served better, in that they don't need to pay fees for their parks, they may have a third commissioner for their courts and the staff to be able to support that, and our fund balance is increasing, we have more money in the bank, $6.7 million. So pleased to see us moving in a healthy direction."

In response, Commissioner Steve Stuart cautioned that the general fund reduction should still be viewed as a concern.

"The fund balance for the general fund, which is the fund that we actually have control and authority over, is reducing," Stuart said, mentioning the $3.8 million addition in expenditures. "Due in large part to one-times, but also $800,000 in ongoing … reductions that we as a board are going to have to deal with as we start addressing our budget for the next biennium, as well as when it comes to supplemental appropriations at the end of this year. It's the bow wave that Commissioner (Tom) Mielke has spoken about very well over a number of years, that we continue to see our expenses outpace our revenue. And with the board action this year … we are now with less money in our fund balance. Overall, fund balance is up, but general fund balance is down."

Tuesday's vote is not the end of financial changes the board has in the works.

Next week, the board meets to discuss a number of modifications to the county's fee holiday. The board has been in some agreement to a plan introduced by Madore that would link planning and permit fees to the county's unemployment rates.

Madore has been pushing to remove such fees as long as the county's unemployment numbers remain below the state level. Stuart has pushed back slightly, with concerns over certain retail developments. But in large part, the board appears to agree on the principle of the fee reduction.

A presentation on how such a plan will alter revenues and incomes for the county will be presented at 6 p.m., May 7 at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver.

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov;erik.hidle@columbian.com.