County heads into ‘flat’ budget season

New finance director aims to continue belt tightening

The rest of the country might be pulling out of the Great Recession, but Mono County is still sitting tight, budget wise.

“It’s flat,” said the county’s finance director, Leslie Chapman. “That’s the best way I can describe it.”

As the county moves toward a mid-August budget review process, Chapman and the county supervisors are going community-to-community to talk to people about what the public thinks are priorities, something new for Mono County.

It’s all happening in the context of a 2013-14 budget that is neither fat nor thin, but somewhere in between, Chapman said.

“There has been an all around improvement in the economy, but Mono County will still have at least another year of belt-tightening,” she said.

Property taxes are still down, although at a lower rate than in the last few years, she said.

The county, with about 14,300 residents (as of the last Census) and which covers about 3,000 square miles, has had an average annual budget of between $68 million and $71 million in the past several years, with about $35 million of that general fund money.

Although the exact numbers won’t be available until August for this year, Chapman said this year’s budget is in the same general ballpark.

General fund money goes toward primary county responsibilities that the county board of supervisors have some discretionary control over, including law enforcement, public works and facilities, animal control, paramedics and other programs.

The rest of the budget is considered to be “restricted”—in other words, it is dedicated to certain services that the county is mandated by the state and/or federal government to provide, such as behavioral health services and other social services.

Another reason for tightening the belt this year, Chapman said, is because the amount of money the county was able to save this year, called the “carry over fund balance” is smaller than last year, mostly due to the fact that the county is no longer losing employees like it was last year. Thus, there hasn’t been as much savings as there was last year due to the vacant positions not being filled, she said.

“At some point, you are going to replace the people you lose or deal with the impacts of reduced services,” she said. “That’s the situation now.”

A relatively new demand on the current budget is something called the California Air Resources Board (CARB) requirement that county diesel-powered vehicles are upgraded to be less polluting within the next decade or so.

It is a very expensive proposition according to the county supervisors, with a price tag of about $26 million—a good chunk of a general fund average of $35 million, even if it is spread out over several years.

Chapman has only been Mono County’s finance director for a few months. She was hired in the spring, after former Finance Director Brian Muir resigned to take another job.

She has already been instrumental in changing some of the ways the budget process works, including the numerous public hearings scattered across the county this week and next.

She said her budget philosophy is to listen, learn and ask for cuts that “people on the ground” can make. Then, if need be, get in and ask for deeper cuts.

“I don’t like requiring across the board cuts of departments,” she said. “It can cost us to lose existing funding and cut services where it would be better to perhaps dig deeper into the details and figure out where we can cut, without doing this.

“Right now we are getting ready (Chapman and Mono County’s new administrator, Jim Leddy) to meet with every department and ask them to whittle things down as much as they can,” she said. “I have a good head for finance, but I prefer if the people running the departments tell us what they need and we try to find a solution together, than make across the board cuts.”

She said she also believes in a balanced budget—and a much larger reserve than the county’s $1.7 million reserve.

“The goal is about $5 million,” she said, a goal that will force the county to tighten the belt even more, although again, all the additions to the reserve won’t be made in one year.

The current budget year began at the end of June.

The county supervisors will begin public discussions about the budget in mid-August, a process that usually takes several back-to-back days.

At that time, all the numbers for this year’s budget will be ready for the supervisors and the public to look at, she said.