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Archive for Sunday, July 23, 1995

S CALL SPURS AUSTERITY IN BUDGET

July 23, 1995

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Cutting the Douglas County budget proved a more ambitious goal than it originally seemed.

As budget goals go, it sounded like pure Star Trek.

When Douglas County Commissioner Jim Chappell announced that he wanted to shrink the 1996 budget by 5 percent and make no allowance for inflation, he was boldly going where no man had gone before in preparing a county budget.

Some county officials muttered privately that Chappell was tripping in outer space. In a county with a rising population and infrastructure needs to match, where was this 5 percent going to come from?

The challenge, which Chappell issued almost casually this spring, caught his two fellow commissioners by surprise. The county's administrative staff cringed.

Looking back, Chappell says he hadn't counted on that reaction or on feeling so lonely through the budget process, which commissioners are wrapping up this month.

``I'm very surprised I couldn't find another vote to cut 5 percent from the budget,'' Chappell said.

``I felt like Don Quixote. The problem was that the windmill kept hitting me in the face every time I saw a paddle go by,'' he said.

Cutting a little or a lot

Although they agreed that thrift in government was a noble ambition, Chappell's fellow commissioners were concerned that budget cuts on the order that Chappell proposed would slice too deeply into essential services and require a rash of layoffs.

As something of a compromise, the commission directed county staff to propose a lean budget and now is on track to approve $24.9 million in expenditures for 1996.

That's a tax levy decline of 4.44 mills. Although the budget will rise by a smaller amount than it has in past years, it still translates into an increase of $653,193. To achieve his goal, Chappell said the commission would have had to whack about $1.5 million out of the budget.

Even Commission Chairman Louie McElhaney, who has record of supporting fiscal restraint, let Chappell's bandwagon pass by.

``I never thought it was realistic to cut the budget by 5 percent,'' McElhaney said. ``I never thought it was possible to hold the line to what it was last year, but that's a goal you can shoot for. Sometimes if you can hold the line, that means you overbudgeted last year.''

The path not taken

County Administrator Craig Weinaug said staff did its best to rally behind the cause. In fact, Weinaug said he identified an additional $1.4 million in cuts that would have whittled another three mills off the county's tax levy.

Those cuts would have sharply reduced funding to outside agencies, cut at least six more jobs beyond the two positions that are targeted for elimination, and erased capital improvement and maintenance projects from the budget.

``I think for good policy reasons (commissioners) decided most of those options weren't feasible,'' Weinaug said.

``I do believe that the push for a reduction by Commissioner Chappell resulted in a final budget that was significantly below the budget that would otherwise have been approved,'' Weinaug said. Agencies and department heads,. in anticipation of increased scrutiny, submitted more conservative funding requests.

``To that extent I think it was a success,'' he said.

Spotty public support

However, Weinaug also pointed out that Chappell himself declined to make some hard choices.

``As it turns out, Commissioner Chappell voted for more additions to the budget than deletions,'' he said.

Chappell doesn't deny that his zeal for attaining the 5 percent reduction flagged during the budget process. Not only did the goal lack support from the other two commissioners but it also had only superficial backing from the public.

True, plenty of people initially had a positive reaction to the concept, Chappell said. ``A lot of those same people would catch me the next day and say, `Oh, by the way, I'm on the board of the XYZ Agency and we need that 11 percent increase.'''

Given the inevitability that the 5 percent cut wouldn't fly, Chappell concedes that he ultimately provided the swing vote on about $200,000 in controverted expenses, and voted against deleting about $120,000 in payroll expenses.

``If I had had another commissioner say to me, `I'll go along with your 5 percent cut in the budget if you'll cut these ... things, you bet I'd have cut them in a minute,''' Chappell said.

``The other side of this is that we are a growing county and we do have increased service needs."

Even so, Chappell expects budget cuts to become a perennial issue for taxpayers. Witness the formation this year of the Douglas County Property Owners Assn., a tax watchdog group that boasts more than 200 dues-paying members.

``I think there's a storm on the horizon of taxes and government, but I don't think the clouds are overhead yet,'' Chappell said.

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