Task Force Looks at Ways to Pay for Lewis County Government Manager

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As a task force continues to formulate its recommendation to the Board of Lewis County Commissioners on the need for a manager to help run day-to-day operations, the members delved deeper into the budget to try to find a way to fund the position.

On Thursday, the task force spent time talking to county Budget Analyst Becky Butler, who walked the group through various levy shift options. One example included taking property tax money that would normally go toward roads and transportation and shifting that into the general fund account for administration costs.

Butler said the last times the county did a levy shift was in 2010 and 2011, when $1 million was shifted both years from the roads budget. The practice can take place on a yearly basis, and is something other counties do regularly. For example, Clark County does a $4.1 million shift every year, Butler said.

The money can be used to balance the budget, but Butler warned that comparing different counties to Lewis County is difficult because each county operates in their own way. She did say Lewis County, which used $1.9 million in reserves to balance the 2016 budget, is not that different from other counties.

“In the last five years this has been something we’ve had to do,” Butler said. 

“… To say Lewis County is the only county struggling with that wouldn’t be a fair statement,” she added, referencing Mason and Pacific counties, which have also dipped into reserves consistently to balance budgets.

When asked by task force member Anil Puri if the county could accommodate a $250,000 increase to pay for a county manager or executive, Butler said it would be difficult.

“It’s going to be tight and there is no magic eight ball to say where we are going to end up and if something is going to come up in November that we are not going to be aware of that will hit our year-end projection,” she said.

Task force members seemed to agree that although hiring a county manager would be an expense at first, the person would create a positive change in the overall management of the county, which then should result in savings.

“I think it would translate into savings, but I think it would be very hard to measure,” chairman of the task force Larry McGee said.

They also discussed the possibility of a sales tax increase that could then pay for a manager and potentially other services, such as the senior centers that are facing an elimination of funding by the commissioners, if that option was still on the table.

Lee Grose, vice chairman of the task force, said he believed a position such as a county manager was needed when he was a commissioner, but he said the county just couldn’t afford it.

“I’m in the position now of ‘can we afford not to?” he said. “Can this county keep operating without someone at the helm that makes easier day to day decisions? … I guess my recommendation would be let’s try it and see what happens.”

Tony Briggs, another task force member, agreed, stating that although the need was recognized in the past, the momentum needed to move forward with the decision was not.

“I would say today, we need it more than ever,” he said.

The task force said it is important to focus on how a county manager would be implemented, stating that if it is done poorly, the person would not be successful in their role. The challenge is to find a good fit for Lewis County, Grose said.

Grose was charged with coming up with a draft document, or the start of a formal proposal, for the next meeting.

Next week, the task force will meet with any department heads willing to discuss their thoughts on having a county manager, look at a list of salaries for managers in comparable counties and then look at the sales tax amounts around the state.

They will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday, and have also tentatively scheduled a meeting on July 5 in case it is needed. The task force will be meeting with the commissioners on July 12 to present their recommendation.  

The commissioners appointed the task force after a group of citizens began meeting early this year to discuss the possibility of a Home Rule Charter, a process that could potentially replace the current three-commission format with a larger council that would be assisted by a professional county administrator. The talks came after a year of controversies reported in The Chronicle, including turmoil at the 911 Communications Center and a hostile work complaint filed against former Lewis County Commissioner Bill Schulte. 

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