Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Del Norte County is going broke and leaders told employees and residents last night to prepare for life to get worse.

This year is the tip of a spiraling iceberg. The county government is beyond sustainable size, said Martha McClure of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.

More than 200 county and Sheriffs Department employees crowded the Veterans Memorial Hall last night to hear their bosses message and get their questions about the budget problems answered.

Whittling down county services provided to the public, paring down the number of employees needed in each department, cutting all employees salaries and selling off county-owned properties are all strategies now in the works to help solve the countys budget problems.

The countys chief administrator, Jeannine Galatioto, is tackling some long-range solutions as well to help bring more money into the countys coffers.

She told employees last night that a handful of specialists have and will be hired.

Fiscal managers will be employed to determine how big-spending departments can handle their money better.

Also the county signed a contract this month with a company called Maximus. It specializes in getting more money from the state to pay for the services the county provides to the public. However, the company will take 30 percent of what it gets for the county.

Were hoping for $100,000 this year from the help Maximus will give us and more in the years to come, said Galatioto.

Plus, county counsel Bob Black has discovered a way to get a larger franchise fee from Pacific Power, bringing the county an extra $300,000 per year.

But theres still about $1.5 million of deficit left to get rid of. And with the belt tightening around employees pockets, some hard-hitting questions were brought to the board and administrators.

(Supervisor) Blackburn said lets pull together. Why cant all of us in the county pull together with a quarter-cent sales tax increase, said employee Fran Gatti which got applause from the audience.

In response, Supervisor Clyde Eller vowed to ask that that be done at the next board meeting, Jan. 22.

Another member of the audience asked if more cuts were planned for employees paychecks and how many layoffs were on the horizon.

Paychecks have already been cut 5 percent and county offices will begin closing every-other Friday at noon.

Galatioto said thats all that will be cut for now, but beginning with the next fiscal year, July 1, 2002, it will likely get worse.

We are looking at further cuts next (fiscal) year, yes, said Galatioto.

Most employees that stood up to ask questions seemed to be satisfied with the boards answers, though no one seemed happy about the grim future.

Unions of the county employees have said they will file an injunction against the countys cuts to paychecksunless the board agrees to go back into negotiations.

Rachael Martin of the information technology department said she and many other employees disagree with the union filing such a lawsuit.

If sacrificing 5 or 10 percent of our salaries will keep people employed for another six or 10 months, we will do it. What good will it do to sue the county? Martin said.

The board of supervisors did agree however to consider a recent letter from the unions to re-enter negotiations on employee pay cuts and health benefits.

The board entered closed session last night to review that letter.

At the close of last nights meeting, Supervisor Jack Reese offered sympathy and hope for the future.

I used to be an employee of the county and president of the union and this whole thing breaks my heart.

But I know somewhere along the road, were going to be better off for facing this head-on, Reese said.