COLUMBIA — Vast differences separate the budget philosophies of the two candidates for Boone County presiding commissioner.
The presiding commissioner is the top elected official in the county. Whoever holds the position works alongside two associate commissioners, who each represent half the county. It's up to this trio to pass the annual budget. The commission hears from many department heads and elected officials during this process, but it has ultimate power to decide how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Republican Ed Robb said he feels county officials are "dishonest" when they overbudget then say they lack money for other programs. But his Democratic opponent, J. Scott Christianson, said the county has done well to provide a consistent level of service with less revenue.
Auditors in other First Class counties say that Boone County isn't doing anything unusual. The current Boone County budget is almost $50 million.
The main problem for Boone County is that sales tax revenue has fallen. This means less money is available, forcing the county to delay some spending.
A budgeting method
Robb grabs a pen when he starts talking about the county's finances. He marks, underlines and circles different portions of a budget summary in black ink. His argument, he explains, stems from a longstanding practice in county budgeting:
Every year county officials assume they will have to pay every one of their employees for the entire year. If someone leaves, which is almost guaranteed to happen with a staff of about 450, then the county saves money because it isn't sending paychecks to that person.
But this isn't the only area where the county can save money. If a department needs a new computer, there's a chance it'll be cheaper than the budget makers originally think, so it ends up paying less.
These and other small savings add up at the end of a fiscal year, Auditor June Pitchford said. The county, as a result, spends an average of 6 percent less than it expects.
This 6 percent is a sticking point for Robb, who puts aside his pen and pulls out six bills — three $20s and three $1s — in a scripted fashion to emphasize his point.
He lays the $20s next to each other on his metal patio table, one at a time. They represent the amount of money that goes to essential county programs. Robb then starts to place dollar bills on each $20. This is the extra money, or 6 percent, departments at the top get. This leaves out programs that are lower priorities in the budget, such as social services and economic development, he says.
Then he lays down the last bill.
"Now, when I get down to program four, five, six, seven and eight, guess what?" he says. "There's no money."
Robb said he wants to go through the county's budget and cut money from departments that consistently spend less than they are given. He proposes creating a fund with a portion of this money in it, in case savings in these departments don't materialize.
Robb said he wants to do this to spark discussion about putting more money in traditionally lower-priority areas, though he offered no specifics about which programs should get more money. But even talking about that would be useless until budget policy changes, he said.
Several auditors in large Missouri counties said spending less than what's budgeted is common throughout government. Pitchford, a Democrat, and Platte County Auditor Siobhann Williams said Robb's plan would create the wrong mentality within departments.
"It's almost a bad idea to cut the budget back like that because they're going to spend money when they don't have to," Williams said. "It punishes them for saving."
Buchanan County Auditor Nancy Nash said that only makes sense.
"Of course I'm going to budget them less the next year," if they spend less than what they're given, she said.
Christianson, the other presiding commissioner candidate, said good leadership at the county level has led to responsible budgeting.
"Boone County has always had a conservative approach to budgeting, a low-risk approach to budgeting, and that's paid off," he said.
Christianson said he agrees with Pitchford, who donated $100 to his campaign. He backed up the county's budgeting process and said the video-conferencing business he owns always tries to come in under budget on projects.
When the county spends less than it budgets, that reflects good leadership, Christianson said.
"Generally, customers are not happy if you get to the end and you give them an invoice that is 125 percent of what you told them it would be," Christianson said. "They're very happy if you give it to them, and it's 97 percent of what it was going to be."
Although he said he is happy with many aspects of how the county works, Christianson does want to change one thing about the budget. He wants to better outline how and when it uses its reserves.
The reserve fund, projected to be $5.8 million at the end of the year, varies annually. The county can dip into that money during tough times. On a more regular basis, it also helps smooth out the county's cash flow, Pitchford said.
The county does have a minimum range for the amount of reserves it wants to keep; it's 15 percent to 20 percent of general fund expenditures and 5 percent to 10 percent of expenditures for other major funds.
But the policy, Christianson said, is vague overall.
Robb agrees. He wants the minimum reserve amount to be set in stone, and he wants to better lay out how the county uses reserves.
Policies and practices differ among counties. In Buchanan County, for example, officials comply with a state requirement that they keep 3 percent of their general fund budget in reserve. But Nash said they're learning the hard way that it's not enough.
"In the fat years people forget," she said. "They forget they need to be putting away for the lean years because the lean years always come."