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County ready to number crunch

Friday, November 12, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:30 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

With expensive purchases looming, holiday shoppers aren’t the only ones trying to get their checkbooks in order.

Boone County Auditor June Pitchford on Monday will present her first draft of a budget for fiscal year 2005 to the Boone County Commission.

In the budget process, county governments face a particularly difficult task because they often have less discretion than city governments.

Not all spending is determined by the Boone County commission because much of the county’s funding is mandated by state statutes for particular purposes. Other elected officials have authority over dozens of the many different special revenue funds derived from local tax propositions or state grants.

That spending must be approved by the elected officials who head the individual departments for which the funds are designated, leaving the commission with little say. For example, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for budgeting much of the proceeds of a special sales tax for law enforcement while the Public Works Department governs the spending of most proceeds of a transportation sales tax.

In 2004, special revenue expenses made up almost half of the $41 million projected budget.

The commission primarily exercises its authority by distributing general fund revenue, which last year amounted to about $21 million, to the various departments and approving the final budget document.

The cost of running county government rises every year as a result of a growing economy and the natural rate of inflation.

Tony DeLong, a former Stone County commissioner who now is county council coordinator at MU Extension, said county commissions typically have less room to maneuver than city governments do.

JOB WELL DONE

Boone County for the past seven years has won a budget presentation award from the Government Finance Officers Association, a U.S-Canadian society of state and provincial finance officers.

The county budget manual provides a comprehensive accounting of procedure and approved spending for the upcoming fiscal year. It can be accessed online by section at www.showmeboone.com/AUDITOR.

“A county might have 10 percent of its total budget as discretionary dollars,” DeLong said. “It’s hard to meet all of your needs and account for rising health, phone, fuel and mail costs at the same time.”

Pitchford wouldn’t give an early estimate of how much the budget for fiscal 2005 might be but said the county is “not in expansion mode.” Her budget, she said, will focus on maintaining infrastructure.

“We’re facing the same sort of increasing costs everyone else is facing,” she said.

How the budget process works

There’s a lot that goes on before the county commission approves the final budget. As a first step, department directors and other elected officials must submit a wish list to Pitchford by Sept. 1, one of many deadlines imposed by state law.

If a department head wants to replace an old vehicle or upgrade software, for example, he or she must include that item in a supplemental appropriation request. Standard costs — file folders, copy paper, employee salaries, etc. — remain relatively static from year to year and form the core budget.

In October, every elected official meets individually with the commission and auditor to justify extra spending. Although the state doesn’t require those work sessions, Pitchford said the county started them two years ago to make the budget process more fluid and to get everyone on the same page.

“Having those meetings in October gets the budget process started early,” she said. “That way, if someone made an omission in their supplemental, there’s time to catch the mistake and make a correction before it’s too late.”

State statutes allow the county to spend more than it receives in a given year so long as the budget doesn’t exceed anticipated revenue and total reserves. In 2004, county officials proposed spending $4 million more than they expected to take in, but a healthy reserve fund allowed them easily to meet the state’s definition of a balanced budget.

Whether spending exceeds revenue or vice versa depends on many complicated factors, such as what emergencies occur or what, if any, major investments the county chooses to make in a given year, Pitchford said.

Even with projected deficits in the past two years, no consistent pattern emerges over time. In 2002, county revenue exceeded spending by $4 million. Nor does Boone County have many obligations. Counting general and special obligation bonds, it has less than $7 million in outstanding long-term debt, well below the $150 million ceiling set by the state.

The final phase of the budget process begins Monday and continues through the early part of next year. The commission is required by state law to hold public hearings on different sections of the budget. Any amendments the commission makes to the first draft must be published before Jan. 10, the deadline for approving next year’s budget.


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