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Commissioners look to make more cuts

Ravalli County Treasurer Marie Keeton defends the need to keep the current employees in her department. Commissioners are considering further reductions in force. Michael Howell photo.

Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

Prohibited by a court injunction from eliminating two clerk positions in the Justice Courts, the County Commissioners turned their attention to the Treasurer and Environmental Health departments to make further reductions in force in an effort to make up the $43,000 budget shortfall created by retaining the Justice Court clerk positions. Commissioner Greg Chilcott asked his fellow board members to have a conversation with the department heads involved before making any decision.

County Treasurer Marie Keeton said that following the previous loss of a position in September due to the budget issues, she was feeling that her department could not stand another loss.

“I don’t feel we can suffer another loss, “said Keeton. “I don’t feel like the county can suffer another loss.” The Treasurer’s department currently has two positions in the tax portion of the department and four positions in the motor vehicle side of the department.

Chilcott said that he assumed that the reduction in revenues at the tax department would result in a reduction in work and time as well.

Keeton said that was a faulty assumption. She said that the reduction in revenues had a lot to do with the difficult economic situation in the county and people were buying older vehicles instead of new ones. She said the lower revenues from the local option tax reflects the lower vehicle values and not necessarily fewer vehicles being registered and licensed.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher disagreed with Keeton’s estimation of the impact on her office. He said her estimations of the increased workload in the motor vehicle section was flawed because it assumed a constant flow of people when actually there are times when there is no one waiting in line.

“I don’t think it’s a fair characterization,” said Kanenwisher. He said it would just mean a longer wait at times. “The reality is that a reduction in force means a reduction in services,” he said, “and that is consistent with all the cuts we’ve made.”

Commissioner Suzy Foss suggested that educating the public about on-line services could be a solution.

Head of the Environmental Health Department Lea Guthrie said that she had held some conversations with a commissioner and the Human Resource Director and believed that her office could absorb the workload right now if a half-time position was eliminated, but that it may become a problem in the spring and summer when groundwater monitoring was being conducted. She suggested that the board consider hiring a seasonal or temporary worker at that time. She also advocated for placing the employee in her department whose position was already eliminated from the budget into a job opening in the Planning Department. The commissioners urged the employee to apply for the job which has already been advertised in-house.

Chilcott urged his fellow board members to hold a meeting with all department heads before arriving at any decision about further cuts.

“I don’t know if we fully entertained that discussion,” he said. “I still think it’s a conversation that needs to be expedited before we put ourselves and our citizens in a tough position.”

Kanenwisher said that input from the department heads had already been formally requested.

“But we didn’t get much response,” said Chilcott. Human Resource Director Robet Jenni agreed.

Kanenwisher said that over the last ten years the number of employees grew at double the rate of population growth. He said the county had no funds for building repair in the past and that those were necessary. He also criticized the notion that the county does not need a Reserve Fund. He said the county’s reserves were one half to one third of what other counties have in reserve as a percentage of their total funds. But he did say he would agree to postpone the decision on the budget until a meeting could be arranged with department heads to look for some extra funds. He said he would “consider nickel and diming our way out of this hole, but make no mistake, it is a hole.”

Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that if the board delayed it could mean that another position would even have to be cut as the hole got deeper.

“It’s up to us as head of the department heads to figure out how to do this,” said Stoltz.

A meeting was scheduled to discuss the budget shortfall with department heads on Tuesday, November 1 at 1 p.m.

A written comment submitted by “a number of concerned citizens of Ravalli County” gave the commissioners a list of money saving options to consider instead of making any further reductions in force. One option was to have each department head identify cost savings of one-half to one percent of their department’s budget, claiming this could produce about $43,000 in savings. Another option was for the commissioners to donate their $20,000 line item for mileage to cover the cost of the commissioners driving to work. Another suggestion included re-creating a Planner/Administrator position at the head of the Planning Department. Instead of retaining the current department manager at $45,000 and hiring a planner at about $37,000, they could eliminate the manager position and hire a single Planner/Administrator that could serve both functions, saving from $22,000 to $53,000 per year. Another option suggested was reducing the commissioners work hours and thus their pay by 40 percent. They cite a number of benefits to this option, including a savings of over $100,000 annually. Several different people echoed and supported these various suggestions in their public comment.

“Many local families have taken the hit during the last round of job cuts – we are presenting you with a list of viable options that will show that all levels of county government are willing to share the burden of reducing costs, not just the county workers on the lower end of the pay scale,” states the letter.

Kanenwisher said that all these discussions were worthwhile. He said he doesn’t mind considering a pay cut for the commissioners but he was not interested in a pay cut personally.

“It’s a full time job and it warrants full time pay,” he said.

He said that he was interested in considering reduction in the members of the board from five to three, however. He said that if the commissioners could find another way to meet the shortfall without any more RIFs that they would use it, but he called the Reserve Fund “absolutely crucial.”

Foss said that she would consider giving up her mileage pay if that was legal, but she was not interested in a reduction in hours. She called it “more than a full time job” and said a huge workload needed to be addressed.

Stoltz responded to a previous remark attributed to him, saying in a loud voice he was tired of being misquoted.

“I work long hours. I investigate a lot,” said Stoltz. He said that he was tired of the “extreme left” coming in every day with complaints. “What I get tired of is the misinformation and the lies,” he said.

Chilcott said, “This is a full time job and you get what you pay for.” He said a meeting could be scheduled to discuss the option, but, “I don’t think you’ve got the arguments to sway me.”

A few citizens commented that the commissioners seem to be in contradiction, on the one hand claiming that it is a full time job for all five and that those hours could not possibly be reduced, and at the same time claiming a reduction to three commissioners was reasonable.

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