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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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In Our View: County’s Red-Ink Blues

Poor spending decisions in the past can lead to a difficult future

The Columbian

When Clark County’s budget managers look at the upcoming two years, they see red. Projected general fund revenue for the 2017-18 biennium looks like it will fall 6 percent short of the amount needed to continue current levels of county services.

A lot of the blame lies with supposedly fiscally conservative county Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke, who apparently saw piles of green money like a nomad sees a silvery oasis in the Sahara Desert. As a result, the county has inflicted itself with both a revenue problem and a spending problem.

On the revenue side, on Madore’s and Mielke’s watch, the county has consistently made contrary decisions. Government entities such as Clark County are entitled to take a 1 percent increase in their local property tax collection every year, but for several years the councilors have declined to do so. The councilors passed a resolution, which was later rescinded, to cut the tax levy collection by 2 percent. They passed a fee waiver giving tax breaks to commercial developers. They eliminated user fees at county parks and boat ramps.

Now, one can make an argument that county government takes in too much general fund revenue — in round figures, $650 per resident over the current biennium — and that taxes and fees should be frozen or cut. But the other part of creating a balanced budget — not just a goal, but a requirement under the law — requires an equal amount of spending.

So after limiting revenue, did Madore and Mielke make the tough decisions to limit spending? Did they cut salaries or lay off employees? Of course not. Instead, they approved raises. They added positions to the payroll. And they ran up the county’s legal costs considerably by claiming that anyone who tried to check their political mania was corrupt.

Healing these self-inflicted wounds will prove to be difficult, because there so are few gray areas in the budget.

The county’s spending is centered around law enforcement and the courts. Befitting a community of more than 460,000 people, Clark County has large court system, where it pays for judges, clerks, prosecutors and, often, defense attorneys. County dollars run the jail, and Sheriff Chuck Atkins’ deputies are the primary police force in Hazel Dell, Felida, Salmon Creek, Orchards and a huge swath of rural territory. So it comes as no surprise that, in the current two-year period, the county is budgeting $234.1 million just for law and justice.

Other county offices are paid from the general fund, too, such as the treasurer, the auditor and the county council. The cost of general government for the current biennium is $91.7 million. Shared internal services, such as information technology, human resources and building management, cost another $42.8 million.

Of course, somehow the county will need to cut spending. The county budget office recently asked departments to submit plans for 10 percent spending cuts. That’s already begun to trigger the parade of “but my program is so important/is mandated by the state/will cost you more in the long run.”

Balancing the budget is going to take listening, reasoning and mathematical skills. It’s going to require teamwork. And it will also require the vision to look not only at the 24 months immediately ahead, but at the long-term prospects for our county.

Until the council solves these problems, county employees and residents will suffer the blues.