Budget hearings end with more than $1.7 million in reserve
In the end, the balance shown in Mono County’s budget could have given Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas a run for her money on the beam.
Even after doling out $100,000 in unencumbered funds to the June Lake community, allocating $85,000 to the air service subsidy and an extra $22,000 to the Tourism Department from its contingency, the Board of Supervisors was still left with $471,000 in that pot.
On Wednesday, as it ran through policy discussions and settled on final numbers, the Board decided to act conservatively and add $111,000 of that contingency to its reserve, bumping it up from approximately $1.6 million to more than $1.7 million.
A 5% reserve for the County would be $1.8 million. Supervisor Hap Hazard was willing to take the contingency down even further to $300,000 in order to put more in the reserve, until Mono County Finance Director Brian Muir reminded him that it was Board policy to keep 1% in contingency, which would be $360,000.
Supervisor Larry Johnston was in favor of keeping the contingency above $400,000 because of expected volatility in the upcoming fiscal year, but the Board ended up unanimously approving keeping $360,000 in contingency and putting the rest in reserve.
“We’ve accomplished everything we wanted in the budget,” commented Hazard.
“By putting more in the reserve the onus will be on us to be very careful,” added Supervisor Byng Hunt.
Over the course of the three-day budget hearing, the supervisors heard from every County department. Many budgets remained status quo with some shuffling of dollars from one Excel spreadsheet to another.
Items that garnered further discussion were: Economic Development and Tourism, Sheriff’s Dept./SAR, Solid Waste, and the Tax Administration Fee Report.
Under policy discussions, air service and the money earmarked for June Lake were also discussed in depth.
The Board agreed to bring intern Jeff Simpson on as a full-time employee since the money was already in the budget for the position.
It also earmarked an extra $18,000 for a new intern to come on board to help with economic diversify within the county.
With an expected shortfall in Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) in the upcoming fiscal year, the Tourism Department was asked to cut its budget back from $203,000 to $191,000, which meant cutbacks across the marketing board, according to Economic Development Manager Alicia Vennos.
After making cuts, the department and the Tourism Commission felt that there were $22,000 worth of unfunded critical projects and asked the Board to consider making up the difference from the General Fund.
Supervisor Vikki Bauer was hesitant at first since Board policy states the budget should be 1% of the projected TOT. Commission Chair Jimmy Little, however, explained that there were a lot of things that Tourism chose not to do in an effort to reach its budget limit.
“We are living within our means and we reduced a lot of other projects,” Little said. “These pieces didn’t fit into the foundation, but are still important.”
The two areas that the $22,000 would be used for are needs for the Mono County website, and contributions to the partnership at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine.
The Board ultimately approved the $22,000 during policy discussions.
The biggest elephant in the room, as Supervisor Johnston described it due to the large portion of the budget allocated to it (15%), was able to live within its budgeted allotment by using a little common sense.
“We cut the amount of hours for boat patrol,” explained Undersheriff Ralph Obenberger.
“For awhile the patrol boat would be the only boat on the water at lakes such as Topaz, so what was the point?” added Sheriff Rick Scholl. The department has now scheduled boat patrol based on public need.
Lieutenant Robert Weber also pointed out the benefits of the volunteer Search and Rescue Department that is run through the Sheriff’s Dept.
With the volunteer contingency, search and rescue bills stay modest. According to Weber, SAR doesn’t bill for its searches in order to keep other counties from billing Mono County.
“In other words, if a Mono County resident were lost in San Bernardino County and their air force were launched for three days, it would be a $700,000 bill,” Weber explained. “If you receive a bill, you have to pay it.” So, Mono County SAR refrains from billing the cost of its searches for out-of-county individuals, which Weber said were more like $7,000.
“We try to collaborate with other counties just to control the billing,” Weber said.
Ultimately the Board chose to approve a loan of $225,000 to solid waste now, and defer the second half of the loan to the mid-year budget review.
Supervisor Larry Johnston, however, was adamant that the Solid Waste Enterprise fund has to be solvent and not keep getting bailed out by the General Fund.
What this likely means is another rate increase, one which Hap Hazard suggested he should do on his watch before leaving office so as to spare next year’s Board the political fallout.
The gate fee was $50/ton. A consultant suggested raising the rate to $99. Last year, the Board raised the rate to $68.50/ton. It appears the Board is leaning towards raising the rate at least another $10.
Tax Administration Fee
With property taxes going down in the past year, Mono County’s special districts, such as fire districts, have seen their tax administration fees from the County stay stagnant or increase, while the return they receive from the taxes collected have gone down.
Representatives from several fire districts throughout the County showed up during budget discussions to discuss this issue.
County Assistant Director of Finance, Roberta Reed, explained to The Sheet that just because revenues are going down, doesn’t mean costs are, too.
“The work has to be done even though property taxes are going down,” Reed explained. “People’s salaries haven’t changed.”
Since fire districts can’t charge for their services as some of the other types of districts can, the smaller departments are struggling to pay the fees when their returns are shrinking.
In an effort to lighten their loads, the Board approved $20,756 in the budget to directly reimburse the six smallest fire districts for their tax administration fees.
The Board also increased the budgeted $133,000 for first responders to $150,000.
“That $17,000 increase was allocated to help reimburse the larger fire districts for the services they provide to the smaller district, such as training,” Reed said.
Air Service Subsidy
The Board held this discussion off until its final policy discussions on Wednesday. As conversation kicked off, Supervisors Bauer and Hunt were both ready to approve the requested $100,000.
Supervisors Hansen and Hazard, however, were only willing to budge with $45,000.
“I feel it is inappropriate to support private business ventures,” Hazard said. “My constituents don’t want the County involved in air service, let alone an air service subsidy. However, I do recognize the benefit of air service to the County as a whole, so I could go back to the $45,000 we allocated in the first year.”
Hansen felt he had crossed the line with support to the private sector by supporting funding to June Lake and the Mammoth Dog Teams, and he wanted to rein himself back in on principle.
“The air service cost is constantly rising and it seems it is being used as extortion or the June Mountain situation,” Hansen said. “It is a service, so I support $45,000, but the County’s role should not be growing and extorted.”
Hansen also questioned a comment that Mammoth Lakes Tourism’s John Urdi had made during his air service subsidy presentation to the Board the week prior regarding a connection between the money the County would commit and the Town of Mammoth’s loan against Measure U.
Supervisors Johnston and Hunt were able to explain that the County money would not be used to pay back the loan, but would reduce the size of the loan that TOML would have to borrow against Measure U from the get-go.
“The Town committed the air service subsidy in full with the Measure U loan,” Johnston said. “The County money will reduce the size of the loan needed from Measure U.”
Johnston suggested a compromise on the amount the Board would consider committing to the subsidy.
“What if we went back to last year’s $85,000?” he asked.
Hazard was willing to allow that number, but Hansen was stuck at $45,000.
The Board approved 4-1 the $85,000 with the caveat that the monies in the subsidy pot would have an equal drawdown among partners.
June Lake support
While already approved prior to budget hearings, the $100,000 allocated to the June Lake community (to be distributed by the County Economic Development/Tourism Department) was brought up for discussion once again by Supervisor Bauer.
“We can’t leave it up to a group of volunteers to earmark the money,” Bauer said of the funds that were handed over unencumbered. “We need to provide the group with more direction or we’re asking for nothing to happen.”
District 3 Supervisor-Elect Tim Alpers, however, felt that the concern was premature.
“Let them have a shot,” he said. “I don’t want the Board to de-incentivize the group.”
The rest of the Board agreed and the funds remained unencumbered.