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Douglas County will see second round of budget cuts

Susie Vasquez, The Record-Courier

In addition to budget cuts affecting everything from county staffing to the annual Easter egg hunt, commissioners are challenging staff to batten the financial hatches one more time so reserves are not used to balance Douglas County’s upcoming 2008-09 budget.

“We’re cutting deep into service levels people have come to expect, but we don’t have many choices,” said Community Services Director Scott Morgan.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to submit a balanced budget using reserves by April 15 to the state, then voted unanimously to try to eliminate the use of those reserves in subsequent weeks.

The final budget must be submitted to the state by June 1.

Commissioner David Brady cast the one dissenting vote, objecting to submission of a balanced budget using just over $400,000 in reserves.

“These are challenging times for everyone. The time for fiscal discipline is upon us,” he said. “The opportunity is here and we need to rise to the challenge.”

County Manager Dan Holler said the reserves used last year were replaced and that would most likely happen this year, should the county opt to use those reserves.

“Your reserves won’t grow but they aren’t decreasing,” Holler said. “We pulled about $400,000 out of our reserves last year.

“We can make up that (budget deficit) using reserves or additional reductions or a combination of the two,” Holler said.

One of the programs being considered for elimination is Douglas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, which provides everything from Meals on Wheels to medical appointments and shopping for seniors. Grants have dried up and costs increase every year for this program, which is funded through room tax revenues.

Morgan said the program is lean and well utilized. Commissioner Kelly Kite sees it another way.

“We’re subsidizing that system by $10 a ride,” he said. “That’s 30 percent better than the Lake but it’s still expensive.

“The grants have gone away and we’re stuck with the expense. Operating out of the Senior Center is saving us money, but we’re also cutting a lot of programs I support,” Kite said.

Decreasing room tax revenues, which provide funding for everything from the library to Douglas County’s Parks and Recreation Department and social services, are a major factor. Those revenues have dropped significantly in recent years, due in part to a lagging gaming and legislation that now siphons 65 percent for tourism promotion.

Commissioner Doug Johnson said the room tax fund is broken even if the economy comes back and we need to find another funding source for these services.

“They (the Community Services department staff) are fighting every year, more so than other departments,” he said. “Maybe we should pass a quarter-cent utility tax and direct it to this.”

“It’s a romantic idea to dedicate a funding source, but then you eliminate other possibilities for it (the funding),” said Kite.

The deficit includes a $266,000 shortfall in room tax revenues and senior center and another $137,000 deficit in the county’s general fund.

The preliminary operating and capital budget totals about $120 million, just over $6 million less than last year, according to information from county officials.

The budget relies heavily on a diminishing revenue base. Property tax and state consolidated (mostly sales) taxes account for about 68.9 percent of revenue, but sales taxes are down and property taxes are limited by a 3 percent tax cap on residences, as approved by the Legislature, according to a report by Holler.

Balance that against unfunded mandates, including the requirement to supplement retirees state health insurance which has grown from $23,417 during the 2003-04 fiscal year to $400,000 for the coming year.

Despite those challenges, the operating budget includes a 3 percent contingency totalling just over $2.9 million, according to Holler’s report.

Brady said it was like being on the one-inch line and not getting the touchdown.

“We need to hold the line and make the necessary cuts,” he said. “I think we can get there.”


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