By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners approved enough funding to pay for hiring four temporary workers in the Road and Bridge Department through the end of this fiscal year and expressed their aim to provide further funding for the FY 2016 budget to keep the temps working for the rest of the summer and fall work season without interruption.
The number of employees at the Road and Bridge Department was cut in half in August of 2013. At the time, the County Commissioners claimed they were facing a potential “shortfall” in funding since Congress had not yet re-authorized the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funding which had been coming in at over $760,000 per year for the previous few years. As a result they felt it was prudent to cut the Road and Bridge Department work crew in half. This was done despite the fact that the county was sitting on close to $2 million in the Road Improvement Fund, which is a savings account where the SRS money may earn interest until being incrementally transferred to the Road and Bridge Department’s operational account when needed for road improvement projects.
The funding for FY 2014 did eventually come through to the tune of $754,532, but the payments did not arrive until April of that year. In the past, payments arrived in January. As a result, the Commissioners did approve $100,000 to hire up to five temporary workers that summer. But, as Road and Bridge Department Administrator John Horat told the Commissioners last week, due to delays in the hiring process, the employees came on board too late to get the usual summer road maintenance work done. There was also a huge load of unscheduled work that had to be done related to the unusual flood event that occurred. This set the county back on its regularly scheduled road paving and repairs. Horat said that the county usually paves about seven miles a year but last year only one mile of paving got done.
Horat said it would cost about $58,000 to pay four temps through June. He said he had $38,000 left in the operational fund for salaries and wages but would need another $20,000 allocated from some other fund.
Road Supervisor Dusty McKern noted that “there is close to three years of SRS funding, about $2 million, in the bank, so we are funded in that respect.” He said acting as though the sky was falling when next year’s allocation is in doubt looks foolish.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that this year was different from the last. He said last year there was no discussion of going to a 25% payment as an alternative to SRS, but this year the 25% payment had already been issued and it only came to $15,585.
“It makes it more of a long shot this year compared to last,” said Chilcott.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said it made sense to use the money now if they have it and they really need it.
Commissioner Jefff Burrows said that they had already received a request for $1 million for new trucks.
Horat said that the department had equipment reserves in excess of $1 million.
Chilcott stated that given the anticipated loss of future SRS funding, the county has to look at how to utilize that money “for the next 10 years, not just the next two or four. We need to look at how we are going to transition to a new funding paradigm for the Road Department.”
Burrows said that there could be a smooth transition even if funding today is kept within this fiscal year. He said authorizing all of it now was premature.
“How about splitting the baby?” said Iman. He said giving them half the requested amount would fund them through July and assure a steady transition into the new fiscal year.
Chilcott said they should respect the budget process.
“I support your good idea,” said Chilcott, “but we have to be sure we have the money to support your good idea.”
Chief Financial Officer Klarysse Murphy said that FEMA’s reimbursement had placed an additional $90,000 in extra revenue in the Road Department’s operational fund and the $15,000 to $20,000 needed to get to the end of this fiscal year could be taken from that. She said the Board of Commissioners generally begins to make some budget decisions for the coming year by the first of June. She said it was a little premature now but that by June 1st some money could be allocated to ensure the temps are paid through the fiscal year transition. She suggested not taking the money from SRS for the sake of consistency.
“We haven’t paid any salaries or wages out of the SRS funds for the last five years. It goes to deferred maintenance and materials,” said Murphy.
In the end it was decided to allocate up to $15,000 to fund the hire of four temporary employees until the end of the fiscal year from the miscellaneous revenue that derived from the FEMA reimbursement.