County's 2008 budget will require dipping into reserves

YAKIMA - A combination of less than stellar returns on investments and less than expected revenues in the elections department means that Yakima County will have to take $845,000 out of reserves in 2008.

That's according to a preliminary $51.9 million general fund budget county commissioners okayed yesterday, Tuesday.

Budget Director Craig Warner explained that recent actions by the Federal Reserve have actually decreased anticipated investment revenues by about $870,000.

Warner said the revenue woes are compounded by the fact that the county elections office will receive about $580,000 less than expected because the state does not fund even-year election cycles, as in the 2008 election. In addition, recent state regulations have limited the amount the elections department can bill local municipalities for running elections.

All told, county revenues will amount to only about $51.1 million for 2008.

The preliminary budget still needs to pass muster through three public hearings before commissioners take final action.

But there's already a clear picture that reserves will have to be used and services will need to be trimmed.

Warner said up to 25 jobs at the county could be eliminated or reassigned because each department is facing mandatory upgrades for retirement and/or pay costs. Retirement fund costs alone will go up by about 15 percent in 2008, Warner estimates.

It's too soon to tell, but one of the harder hit departments may be law and justice, which is footing the bill for more than $2 million, so far, in trying two murder cases.

The news could get worse in 2009, as the county that year will not be able to dip into reserves under a rule commissioners have imposed requiring that funds totaling 12 percent of the general fund be held back in reserves. The dip in 2008 will cut reserves to about $6.1 million, said Warner.

Commissioner Mike Leita said steps are underway to make sure reserves won't be needed to pay the bills in 2009. He said specific disciplines are in place so that if or when the county receives unanticipated funds they will be held in a savings account rather than spent.

As for the three public hearings they are set for Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 10:30 a.m. in the county commissioners' meeting room at the courthouse, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. at Moxee City Hall and Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. at the county courthouse.

Commissioners have held budget hearings in Yakima and Grandview the past two years. Because of low turnouts in Grandview, commissioners this year sought to hold the Lower Valley hearing elsewhere.

"Our first choice was Sunnyside. I tried on three separate attempts to have it there before anywhere else," said Christina Steiner, the clerk for county commissioners.

Steiner said each time she was unsuccessful, noting that she was told the council chambers in the Law and Justice Center would be too small of a venue for the meeting.

Sunnyside City Clerk Deborah Estrada confirmed that she discouraged the use of the council chambers because of its formal setting, in which the three commissioners would have to sit above those providing comment about the 2008 budget.

It is an arrangement, though, Sunnyside city council and planning commission officials employ for all of their meetings and public hearings.

"I never said it (a county budget hearing) couldn't be held in the council chambers," Estrada added.

Estrada said she attempted to refer the county to the larger community center in Sunnyside but after a series of e-mails the county decided to look elsewhere.

Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler sounded an optimistic tone regarding the county's use of the council chambers

"It would certainly be available," he said. "We certainly could work with the county if they like that location. It would be great to have a south or lower county forum."

Steiner said she also sent out the word to other Lower Valley communities such as Toppenish and Zillah, but said those locales hesitated before offering a yes or no.

"We don't have time to hem and haw about it," Steiner said of scheduling the hearings.

Leita said he and the other two commissioners are receptive to adding additional hearing dates if residents or municipalities in the Lower Valley seek a local venue.

"We're always open," said Leita.

Added Warner, "We don't spend all this time in developing a budget to put it on a shelf. We want to get it out there and present it to the public."

To express a request for a Lower Valley budget hearing date, or to comment on the budget, contact Warner at 509-574-1313 or Steiner at 509-574-1502.

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