Triplicate staff writer
Slowly rising revenues, sharp increases in payroll and the failure of a sales tax proposal to fund operations at the new juvenile hall appear to be largely to blame for Del Norte Countys $1.7 million budget shortfall.
According to county budget numbers from the last 15 years, payroll costs increased only modestly or even declined during the 1990s, matching relatively flat revenues.
Then in 1998, payroll costs for the departments under the general fund jumped from $8.8 million to $9.7 million. Payroll spiked again in 1999 to $10.8 million and to $12 million in 2000.
Most of that increase reflects an effort on the part of the Board of Supervisors to raise county worker pay scales even though revenues were not keeping pace.
It was an attempt to bring people up to a livable wage, said Del Norte County Supervisor Martha McClure.
We did a comparable salary study which compared us to nine or 10 other counties. We took those and attempted to bring people up to an average of that, McClure said.
Starting in January 2000, most positions got 50 percent of that suggested salary increase. Then in January 2001, those positions got another 25 percent of the suggested increase and the rest came in July 2001, according to county auditor/controller Christie Babich.
And those increases only brought them up to the 1998 average. Every other county has kept up the cost-of-living increases since then, McClure said.
Now, because of this years deficit, the largest in Del Nortes history, supervisors say they are forced to roll back pay by 5 percent and will likely make more cuts starting in July.
Also contributing to the budget crisis was the opening and staffing of the new, state-of-the-art juvenile hall.
Racking up an $800,000 bill to the countys general fund, juvenile hall costs make up half this years deficit.
The county wasnt unaware of how much the new hall would cost to operate. County documents from 1998 show remarkably accurate forecasts of annual expenses set at about $1 million.
Those same documents say the county was counting on the passage of a quarter-cent sales tax to cover the costs.
The Del Norte County board of Supervisors has placed a one-quarter-cent sales tax measure before the voters on the June 1998 ballot.
An existing one half-cent sales tax has already been approved by the voters and is set to expire in June 1998. The county is asking the voters to continue the sales tax increase and allow the funding to offset added juvenile hall expenditures, reads the 1998 grant application to the California Department of Corrections for the halls construction.
But even after the tax initiative failed, no county officials can recall scrambling to come up with other solutions to cover the halls operational costs after construction.
Babich said she was not included in any strategizing. McClure, who was instrumental in getting the hall built, said it was assumed that renting beds to other counties and other revenue sources would bring enough money to cover costs.
Construction started in April 1999 and was not completed until late 2001.
Although actual construction costs were covered by a grant, the county had to come with $500,000 as a match to the grant, then cover the costs of opening and operating it.
But McClure said the hall was an absolute necessity.
We were walking a tightrope toward a lawsuit, because we werent meeting standards with the old hall, she said.
She added that farming out juveniles to other counties would have cost more in the long-run than building the new hall.
Taken together, sharp salary hikes and juvenile hall expenses alone exceed the $1.7 million shortfall the county is now scrambling to cover.
As for a shrinking tax base and loss of timber funds the factors county officials generally cite as the reason for the budget deficit budget numbers over the last 15 years do show only modest increases or even decreases from property and timber tax revenues throughout the 1990s.
In 1990, property taxes brought in $1.7 million. Eleven years later in 2001, property tax revenue had risen, but just barely, to $1.87 million.
Timber tax income, the money derived when lands are logged, has fluctuated wildly since 1985. In the last 15 years, revenues from that source were highest in 1993, when the county received $574,000 from timber taxes. The least the county received in that category was in 1998, when $212,000 came in, county records show.
One way the county supervisors will attempt to balance the budget is to dissect each of the 47 general fund departments and trim whatever fat is left.
Its not going to be pleasant, McClure said. She is one of five members of a budget oversight committee formed to ferret out the problems and fix them.
McClure said the committee will find a benchmark year when revenues for each department covered a core number of staff members and other costs in that department.
If extra staff or other amenities are found beyond that, they will presumably be eliminated, according to McClure.
Were trying to put it in a formula mode rather than a personality mode, she said.