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County budget Drew

Finance Committee Chairman Dan Drew offers a contribution to help pay for noon meals on days, in the coming weeks, when the committee will work long days hearing 2019 budget requests from Columbia County's various departments. 

It’s a virtual certainty that Columbia County officials will, for the sixth consecutive year, need to dip into reserves to balance the budget.

But how much is available in the general fund, how much the infusion would need to be and how long such dipping can continue are all unknowns, as the County Board’s Finance Committee begins the task of hearing departments’ budget requests.

County Comptroller Lois Schepp said the expenditure requests, so far, exceed the available revenue by about $2.4 million.

Unavoidable cost increases, for things like employee raises and increased health insurance costs, will almost certainly eat up any increase in property tax revenues that the state levy limits would allow, Schepp said.

Over the next few weeks, the Finance Committee will meet with individual department heads to consider their budgetary requests for next year. That process – including callbacks when department heads are asked to revise their budget requests – is expected to take until early October.

Finance Committee Chairman Dan Drew of the town of Pacific said, however, that the task will not be as daunting as it initially seems, because the county’s Accounting Department has arranged the figures in ways that are easy to follow.

“It’s organized so we can get through this in a reasonable amount of time,” Drew said.

To balance the 2018 budget, the dip into reserves amounted to about $1.5 million, which was about $400,000 less than originally anticipated, because the county saved money by switching employee health insurance from Group Health Trust to Dean.

Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said the county’s two-year agreement with Dean includes a rate increase of no more than 8.9 percent, regardless of claim history or other factors.

However, negotiations between the county and Dean are ongoing, in the hope of capping the increase at only 7.9 percent, which Schepp said would cost Columbia County about $50,000 less than an 8.9 percent increase.

Personnel costs, including wages and benefits for more than 500 county employees, constitute the largest share of the budget, Ruf said.

The County Board’s Human Resources Committee is making no recommendation one way or the other about an across-the-board pay increase for most county employees – those whose compensation is determined by a pay grade system begun in 2015, and which the Human Resources Committee is now considering tweaking in some job categories.

The county’s cost for moving some job classifications to higher pay grades, in the interest of attracting and retaining employees, could easily top $450,000, Ruf said.

A 0.5 percent across-the-board increase in the pay scale would cost about $150,000, he said – in addition to the cost of longevity-based pay increases for employees who are eligible for them.

Ruf also outlined 11 requests for new job positions or increased hours or pay for existing posts – as prioritized during a recent joint meeting of the County Board’s Executive and Human Resources committees.

The Finance Committee is not required to grant any of the requests, and committee members are free to grant a lower-ranked request over a higher-ranked one, Ruf said.

“These are out there for your consideration,” he said. “The rankings are not binding on this committee.”

A bonding request of about $2.8 million, for new Columbia County Sheriff’s Office radio equipment, is likely to happen next year, but the Finance Committee doesn’t need to decide on that now, for the purposes of assembling the 2019 budget, Schepp said.

The proposed 2019 budget will be presented to the County Board in October, and the board will likely vote on the budget’s adoption in November.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

Portage Daily Register Reporter