County waits on bailout

October 08, 2001 11:00 pm

By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Del Norte County is anxiously awaiting a report from state officials to determine whether help is available to close a $1.7 million budget deficit.

The ball is in the states court now, said Supervisor and Board Chair Martha McClure, as she approved the countys budget last week.

Though the Board of Supervisors said it was adopting a balanced budget for fiscal year 2001-2002, it will only be truly balanced if the state money comes through.

And each county is required by law to adopt a balanced budget.

The supervisors say the gap in the budget was caused by declining income and too many state-mandated programs.

Sandy Harrison, a spokesperson for the state Department of Finance, said a program analyst from his department has been looking through the countys records. The analyst was expected to discuss his findings with his supervisors yesterday.

Its unclear exactly when the state will make its decision on the countys request, according to Harrison.

But, he did say such a bailout would be unusual.

To my knowledge, it hasnt happened at all. At least not in the past several years, Harrison said.

He did agree, however, that it is likely legal for the county to claim its budget is balanced based on the not-yet approved handout.

I think they have to make their best good-faith effort, to project what their revenues are going to be for the year.

And I guess if they feel that gift is a good possibility, they can do that, he added.

If the state doesnt come through, however, the county will have to consider other options, and county officials arent sure whether bankruptcy would be one of them.

I think its very clearly the last resort and a very remote possibility, said Del Norte County counsel Bob Black.

There is a chapter in the bankruptcy code for public entities such as county governments to declare an inability to pay debts, according to Black.

In recent years, Butte County came close to filing, but was bailed out by the state, according to county auditor Christie Babich.

County officials say the budget is off by $1.7 million because the state is mandating so many programs and services without helping the county pay for them.

Additionally, supervisor Chuck Blackburn said the county has been robbed of its property tax revenues.

Del Norte County gets 19 cents on the dollar, the rest goes to the state, Blackburn said, adding that about 80 percent of the countys land is not taxable because its owned by the National and State Park system.

Blackburn noted that the city has an easier time with their budget because the population is more dense, generating more tax revenues. The city also gets income from its water and sewer systems, a resource the county doesnt have, he added.

But are those acceptable reasons, to the state, for not having a balanced budget?

Possibly.

When theres a state mandate, the state has the obligation to pay for them, said Harrison.