County commissioners adopt $22.8M budget

By David Louis

RAWLINS — In a unanimous vote, the Carbon County Commissioners voted Monday to adopt its 2016-17 general fund budget of more than $22.8 million, described as a budget in crisis.

As with many of Wyoming’s counties, budget constraints were caused by assessed valuations dropping precipitously because of low oil and natural gas commodity prices.

The valuation is used to calculate the countywide mill levy revenue, which decreased by nearly $3 million from the 2015-16 fiscal year.

As the valuation fluctuates, mill levy revenue provided to bolster the general fund and help operations with the county fair, museum, library and Memorial Hospital of Carbon County also fluctuates. This year’s valuation was down 29 percent from last year.

The general fund budget represents almost $16 million in total cash and estimated revenue versus nearly $22.8 million in expenditures, leaving the county to use nearly $7.1 million in tax mill levy revenues to make up the difference.

The county general fund received $6,818,200, the Carbon County Museum $130,140 and the library’s share was $150,253. In addition, the library received the promised $75,000 for expenditures at branches outside of Rawlins, and $36,000 for operations external to their portion of the levy.

When the vote for adoption took place, an audible sigh of relief came from the commissioners, with John Johnson slumping in his chair saying that was the “longest, most grueling, aging budget” session ever.

To a commissioner, communication was key in developing a responsible budget that did not hamper the delivery of services.

“You’ve got to communicate with the elected officials, the department heads, outside agencies and you’ve got to understand the realm of where we are and go at it with an attitude of not why it won’t work, but how are we going to make it work,” Johnson said.

“It’s tough to safeguard ourselves now. All we can do is communicate and be prudent fiscally.”

Commissioner Leo Chapman also expressed his fear for the future.

“We understand next year is going to be worse ... so we will determine again how we are going to do that. I haven’t got a clue yet,” he said. “We’ve worked for several months to get (2016-17) to where it’s at now.”

Chapman, as well as his four counterparts, has never enjoyed a robust budget.

“When I first became a commissioner (2010), a year before, I would say a very brave commission had to take steps to save the hospital,” he recalled.

At that point in time, the county had built up more than $1 million in reserves.

But, with a hospital only days away from closing its doors, the then-commissioners provided the hospital board with a financial bailout.

“It bled about $1.8 million out of our reserves that we dearly need now. In the declining years since, we’ve never had an ability to reestablish those reserves. It was always our goal to put more money into reserves, but it’s just never worked out,” Chapman said.

“We didn’t ‘blow the money,’ if you will. We saved a valuable hospital. It’s not the fault of anyone. I don’t think it was irresponsible.  It was just the way the chips fell.”

Chairman John Espy praised the work everyone had put into a budget that cut so much from so many.

“At the end of the day, I want to thank our elected officials and department heads for being team players through this budget process. It was tough and they all came with a plan in how to make things work for the good of the whole county,” he said.

“We knew it was going to be a tough cycle and we’re watching to pinch pennies (in the future) where we can.”

Although the county’s assessed valuation is expected to continue to slide, a more immediate problem is a continued assault by the Wyoming Legislature to reduce funding to local governments.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the state doesn’t come back and cut funding for local government during the next session. It wouldn’t shock me one bit. The House of Representatives I think will stand to leave things alone, but the Senate will probably come after that funding,” Espy said.

“We as commissioners, and our state association, are going to have to fight to keep everything where we can to (fund) local government and keep it as close to the people.”

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