The Clark County council made no decisions on how to balance the county’s finances during a Tuesday afternoon work session. However, it used the meeting to express concerns about new debt financing and cuts to the sheriff’s office included in the proposed 2017-2018 budget, while also disagreeing over how to address its recurring financial shortfall.
The budget, put together by Clark County Manager Mark McCauley and his staff, includes more than $21.6 million in cuts, funding adjustments and tax increases to balance the county’s finances.
One issue that councilors expressed unease with is using $7.5 million in short-term debt financing to fund information technology infrastructure, including a network security project and an upgrade to financial management software.
Budget Director Adriana Prata described the projects as “truly critical needs.” She told the council that with interest rates and inflation rates currently low, the project could be financed with only 1.5 percent to 2 percent interest. She said that the county’s current financial management software system is badly outdated.
“We can’t keep up properly with technological changes,” she said. “It really is a system on life support.”
Councilor David Madore said that he understood arguments for the projects, but suggested they could be funded with other savings and new revenue elsewhere in the budget rather than new debt.
“It’s a real hard place for me to go to external financing,” added Councilor Jeanne Stewart. “On the other hand, these needs are becoming more and more grave to get them accomplished, because we eventually enter into less productivity when equipment doesn’t work, when our software doesn’t work.”
Deputy County Manager Bob Stevens responded that there might be savings present in the budget at the end of the year which could offset the cost of the projects by possibly half.
Sheriff’s office budget
On Monday, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins posted a statement on Facebook stating he will consider closing the Central Precinct, suspending expansion of his office’s jail re-entry program, canceling reserve deputy and citizens academies and cutting other services in response to the $1.87 million in cuts the budget includes for his department.
The sheriff’s statement was a cause of concern for the council.
“When you talk about law enforcement, you need to recognize that the No. 1 priority of government here is to make sure that the safety of our people is second to none,” said Councilor Tom Mielke.
Stewart said she was “very concerned” about the situation and hoped that a compromise could be reached.
One of the unique challenges for the sheriff’s office is the loss of a $3.3 million contract with the city of Vancouver to manage records. Even with the expected loss of the revenue, Atkins told The Columbian that the cuts in the proposed budget were surprising. He said that he won’t allow the cuts to affect staffing levels of deputies nor corrections officers. Atkins also said that there is another function of his office he won’t allow cuts to affect.
“I’ve told (the council) all along, whatever cuts you give me it’s not going to come out of the records unit,” he said.
The records unit has been focused on fulfilling the contract with the city of Vancouver, said Atkins. Now, he said that he wants the records unit to focus on archiving “hundreds of thousands of paper documents” and catch up on its backlog of public records requests. He said the sheriff’s office has a backlog of 600 public records requests that grows each month. If the requests aren’t fulfilled, he said the county could be subject to a lawsuit under the state’s public records law.
“Law and justice first would be my priority,” Madore said at the hearing. Madore added that with the county bringing in more revenue it should properly fund the sheriff’s office first.
Stevens responded that the council could make changes to the budget, but it had to balance.
Clark County has seen its revenues increase as a result of the improved economy, with sales tax alone growing by 11 percent in 2015. With all the new money, Councilor Julie Olson asked Stevens for an overview of why resolving the county’s finances won’t be so easy.
Stevens said the county’s problems began in 2001 when Initiative 747 was passed, placing a 1 percent annual cap on increases in local property tax levies. Stevens said it created a “structural deficit” where the growth of revenue is less than the cost of expenses.
“You can’t cut your way out of a structural deficit because what we’re talking about here is the rate of growth,” he said.
He said that county had cut all of its “fat” and was now down to the “bone.” He said that the county had no control over the rising costs of retirement, medical care and wages for employees, the county’s largest source of expenses. He said the county has 236 fewer employees than it did in January of 2008 but is still grappling with their costs.
Madore suggested the county could “prioritize our way out of the structural deficit.” He said that revenue was “pouring” into the county and it only becomes a deficit if the county can’t control costs.
Olson responded that the revenues and expenditures had been presented to the council as well as ways to reconcile the two.
“If we want to do something differently then instead of pontificating, why don’t you pick some things out and put some proposals together?” Olson asked Madore.