By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

After several months of combing the books, a hiring freeze and cutting back staff hours, the county will announce today it has turned a $1.7 million budget deficit into a $279,000 surplus for the previous fiscal year.

That surplus, carried over into this year's budget plan, gives the county coffers what it needs to pass a new balanced budget for fiscal year 2002-2003.

At 10 a.m. today, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors will open a public hearing of the proposed budget. The board is expected to approve the budget today, as the state deadline this year is Oct. 2.

andquot;We've been extremely fiscally prudent,andquot; said county administrative officer Jeannine Galatioto about the last nine months of struggling to cut costs and scrape up revenues.

Lost in that struggle were 27 jobs and thousands of work hours. Employees gave up every other Friday afternoon to help their departments save money.

andquot;Which is the only reason we're close to balancing,andquot; Galatioto said.

In fact, the county saved $700,000 with the employee cutbacks. It saved $300,000 by cutting office expenses and found new ways to bring in money totaling about $820,000 thanks to help from the firm Maxim.

Maxim specializes in financial analysis and helped the county find ways to get reimbursements from the state for the services the county provides on behalf of the state.

Those gains and other manipulations resulted in the surprising surplus and the ability to avoid more budget problems this year.

andquot;The positive fund balance was a major factor in achieving a balanced budget this fiscal year,andquot; Galatioto said.

But the stress is not over yet, she said.

andquot;We will have to keep a constant watch, because we're looking at about $350,000 we'll have to deal with next year,andquot; Galatioto said.

Plus, the county has not seen what the exact effects of the state's budget problems will be for programs here.

Galatioto said the county has rough estimates of how much state funding was cut from each program and department but won't know exact numbers until letters of allocation arrive later this month.

The departments of Mental Health and Social Services were both hit hard by the governor's budget for the second year in a row.

Mental Health will not be able to fill three now open positions for clinicians and funding for mental health's Children's System of Care was reduced.

In addition to state cuts, Galatioto said the general economy is holding back the county accounts, too.

andquot;The interest rates are killing us,andquot; she said.

Each year, the county collector/tax collector invests the county's money in a pool with other counties' monies in an interest-bearing fund.

Last fiscal year county investments fell short of expectations by $275,000.

Though all the numbers are now balanced, Galatioto said the achievement did not come without many sacrifices that the county will continue to suffer from for the foreseeable future.

andquot;Our financial outlook will remain bleak until economic development occurs, interest rates climb and the state restores both state-mandated cost reimbursement and program funding.

andquot;It appears that next fiscal year will be more challenging given the deferment of many more program cuts at the state level that will manifest in additional cuts to crucial services serving our most vulnerable populations,andquot; said Galatioto.