The Mono County Fiscal Year 2013-14 budget is strained but intact, reported Mono County Administrative Officer Jim Leddy at the first of a series of County-wide budget town halls in Crowley on Monday night. Future budgets will continue to challenge the County, Leddy said, necessitating a prioritization process to allocate funds to programs and services that the community deems most important. To that end, the six budget town halls conducted across the County this month are intended to collect community input on cost-cutting measures and funding priorities.
“I’ve never seen Mono County do this kind of thing,” said Mono County Supervisor Fred Stump. “This is an experiment. Hopefully it will be a good experiment.”
Leddy provided a brief overview of County budget trends, noting that property taxes are beginning to stabilize, but that last year still saw a drop of less than 1%. Both the General Fund balance and County Staffing continue on their own downward movements, from about $44 million in the General Fund in 2008/2009 to about $36 million last Fiscal Year, and from about 340 full time staff in 08/09 to about 285 this year.
Nevertheless, at $71 million, the County budget this year may seem robust enough to carry the County through the coming fiscal year. Yet Leddy noted that only a small portion of that number is discretionary, and that discretionary funding comes from the already over-taxed General Fund. Of the $36 million in General Funds that makes up the $71 million budget, $12 million is funded by state, federal and other governmental funding, and is restricted to specific programs, such as law enforcement and housing. Only $24 million of the General Fund is discretionary, and must be used to fund community services including law enforcement, civic services, public works, and health and social services.
With a $550,000 General Fund subsidy allocated just to roads last year, among many other such subsidies and funding increases from the General Fund, the $24 million discretionary pot quickly depletes each year, Leddy explained.
Moreover, Mono County faces two significant budgeting challenges in the next 10 years, one of which was not reflected in last year’s budget. That challenge is the California Air Resources Board (CARB) Clean Air Complaint vehicles mandate, which will require the County to replace its entire fleet of heavy equipment vehicles between now and 2028, to the tune of about $26 million. Supervisor Stump reported that Public Works has thus far managed to whittle that number down to $25 million, in part by planning an elimination of the County’s water trucks, to be replaced by less expensive water tanks.
The second budgeting challenge comes from the County’s solid waste program, particularly the approaching 2023 closure of the Benton Crossing landfill. This alone will cost the County $3.2 million, with an additional $86,000-$100,000 per year in monitoring costs for 30 years after 2023, Leddy said.
With these liabilities and unmet needs,“We would need to double the amount available in discretionary funds to prioritize as we’d like,” Leddy said.
Needs include building County reserves to 15% of General Fund expenditures ($3.7 million), continuing to fund roads and facilities — with a roads deficit that “in 10-20 years will probably make you want to have a drink,” according to Leddy — as well as funding technology systems and services for disadvantaged members of the community.
The question the CAO posed to the community at the Crowley Community Center in light of these financial burdens was how to address budgeting priorities in a thoughtful, rather than a politically reactive, way. The Mono County budget won’t be changing for the better anytime soon. “This is the new normal,” Leddy said. “This next decade is going to define how our County survives.”
Audience members suggested a variety of ideas for cost cutting measures, including double-sided, black and white paper copies; banning plastic bags at grocery stores, with a fee for bags purchased; and downsizing Animal Control. Audience members also proposed priorities such as a sustainable Paramedics Department, continued funding for small fire departments, assistance for the Crowley Fourth of July fireworks show, and funding for road and facility maintenance. Mono County Finance Director Leslie Chapman dutifully took down these and other comments, and will make these comments, as well as those collected at the next five budget town hall meetings, available to the Board of Supervisors for review.
One audience member wondered if the 800 pound gorilla in the room wasn’t the prioritization, but the County’s pressing need to raise money. “Ultimately, it sounds like what we have to do is tax ourselves more,” she said.
Leddy disagreed: the County must learn “to say no to some projects,” he said. He maintained that this, coupled with a more responsive and timely budgeting methodology, could ensure the County works successfully with its limited budget.
The budget town hall workshops continued on July 9 in Bridgeport, July 11 in Walker, and July 15 at the Chalfant Community Center. These workshops continue on July 16 in Mammoth and July 18 in June Lake.