Wednesday, June 19, 2024

BOCC approves budget, now focusing on audit

Local Editor | September 8, 2023 1:00 AM

The Shoshone Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) unanimously approved a $17 million county budget for the 2023/24 fiscal year – but it will not be the last we hear of the much-maligned financial plan.

After weeks of examination, cutting, and maneuvering, the board was able to put together a budget that they believed that they could legally pass, and actually afford. The budget was then presented to the public during a public hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Two weeks ago, as the board was working toward getting a proposed budget in order, numbers weren’t adding up which led them to ask Shoshone County Clerk Tamie Lewis-Eberhard to another look at them.

According to documents provided to the News-Press by the BOCC, the county has accumulatively overbudgeted by more than $3 million over the past four years – the reason behind this has yet to be determined. However, a number of potential reasons have been discussed as the culprit, these include basic overspending, previous budgets not accurately reflecting the uses of one-time revenues, and the overestimation of expected revenues.

Even after making more than $1 million in cuts, the board is using a lot of one-time money to cover some costs that landed in the cut pile. These funding sources include $1.7 million from a property sale, as well as moving several different items from the budget and covering them with LATCF funds, which are an extension of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The $17,755,400 budget is still higher than last year’s budget by more than $400,000 – however, roughly $300,000 of that increase is tied to wages and salaries, the rest going toward other expenses. The total budget will come at a cost, as the county will increase its annual levy by the 3% maximum allowed rate, as well as $53,000 in foregone balance monies.

A foregone balance is the difference between what taxing districts are allowed to levy and what they actually levy – If a county did not levy the maximum amount in a previous year then the difference, or foregone balance is tallied and set aside. But when a county needs to go above that 3% levy, they can add a percentage of that foregone balance to their upcoming levy.

During the contentious rounds of cutting, one of the cuts that made headlines was the board’s decision to not approve a 1% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for the county’s employees – a savings of roughly $130,000.

Despite not receiving a COLA raise, several departments have wage scales that differ by department. For instance, the county’s justice fund, which funds the sheriff’s department, safety building, jail, and public defense departments, will see roughly $140,000 in wage increases based on a revised wage scale that was determined two years ago.

During the public comment period, former commissioner Jay Huber addressed the current board, where he was critical of the decision to not approve the 1% COLA.

“I feel really bad that you’re not giving any raises to the individual workers here at the county,” Huber said. “They are very grossly underpaid, which they were last year and we tried to fix that and now it’s back to square one it seems like.”

Last year, while Huber served on the board, a 7% COLA was included in the budget in order to try and get workers closer to the industry standard level of wages.

Huber also leveled accusations at the board for not taking a pay cut despite reducing their days in office from four to three. During his comments, he also acknowledged that BOCC chairman David Dose served as a commissioner previously – roughly three decades ago – and during that time the board had reduced county wages by 4%.

After the public comment period ended, Dose took a few moments to respond to Huber.

During his initial run as a commissioner, the Bunker Hill Mine had completely shut down – leaving hundreds of people out of work and subsequently cutting one of the county’s largest sources of revenue.

“When the county went broke after Bunker Hill closed we did take a 4% cut and I think I learned something from that. It did take the county years to recover, but I don’t know what else we could’ve done because the money wasn’t there. We are doing everything that we can to avoid reducing salaries, but we have to make the income match the outgoing. But I would agree with you on one thing, I don't see anyone here that’s overpaid.”

Following the meeting, Dose spoke with the News-Press to further address Huber’s comments as well as discuss the next steps for the county.

“Mr. Huber seemed to feel that we weren’t giving raises because we didn’t want to,” Dose said. “The truth is that we’re not giving raises because last year the commission wrote checks that they couldn’t cash. They did a good thing by raising pay, but they didn’t do the math right to figure out if they could cash those checks. And now, because of that, we can’t give raises when we were inclined to.”

One of the biggest takeaways from the public hearing was that the county will be immediately pivoting from the approval of the budget and focusing on a third-party audit where they hope to determine what caused the overbudgeting and work toward making sure that any mistake that they discover isn’t replicated.

This audit is independent of the process that the county legally has to perform annually.

“Until we get this audit done, we’re still not positive about all of these numbers. They’ve changed,” Dose said. “We’re looking to figure out when the county financially started over-committing. Were we really passing unbalanced budgets according to that other audit for the past five years? If so, why did that get ignored or why wasn’t it brought up and budget meetings until this year? When did we cross the line where we spent more than we were taking in.”

The BOCC has already been in contact with the Idaho State Controller’s office, and they have put them in touch with an auditing firm that specializes in handling government budgets.

“We don’t want to lose any momentum on this,” Dose said. “If we don’t get this done then we will for sure be in the same place in 10 months as we try to put together next year’s budget. But we won’t have the one-time money to cover us.”