Budget facing big cuts
Joe MacDonald, left, Josie Johnson and Damian Jasso dance in a program by people with disabilities and their teachers at the University of Montana on Monday. A choir also was part of the program.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

New jail losing money

Missoula County is bracing for an estimated 11 percent budget reduction for 2001 to cover an expected $2.6 million shortfall.

The Missoula County commissioners told department heads Monday to plan on the cuts being permanent. They also asked each department to project how to cut between

8 percent and

15 percent of their 2000 budgets. Across-the-board cuts are not anticipated, meaning different departments could suffer different reductions in services.

Budget Director Jane Ellis said Missoula County hasn't seen this magnitude of cutbacks since 1988, when property tax freezes devastated local government spending.

"This needs to be a permanent downsizing," Ellis said. "Don't get seduced into thinking we'll all take a furlough for a week and get back to normal."

The reduction could be smaller if voters approve three mill levy requests to fund weed eradication, museums and parks this June. If all three pass, the county's general fund reduction will shrink by about $450,000.

Ellis said a major problem stems from the county's new regional detention center. Instead of breaking even or making money, the jail is costing the county more than $1 million this year. There are several reasons, including state support that has failed to come through, state-funded prisoners who arrived later than expected, and a juvenile detention wing that was supposed to earn rent from other counties but instead is filled with local youths.

"This sickens me," said Sheriff Doug Chase. "It absolutely drains me of any enthusiasm about this. It's sad our jail situation got off on the way it did, but we predicted that the juvenile wing would be full all along."

"Bringing the jail online has contributed to this problem," replied county Chief Administrative Officer Ann Mary Dussault. "But it's not the cause of the problem. We're facing a decreasing cash flow that may for the first time in Missoula County history leave us with a cash deficit in the general fund."

"It seems the bulk of this problem comes from over-expenditures and revenue shortfalls from the jail," County Attorney Fred VanValkenburg told the commissioners. "You're telling us to get ready for nicks and cuts while we've got an artery gushing out at the jail. We need to stop the bleeding where it's more significantly occurring."

VanValkenburg also questioned why county tax revenue isn't matching the pace of new construction around Missoula. Ellis said while tax collections have increased, state law has allowed the county to realize just 2.5 percent revenue growth a year - just enough to keep up with salaries.

Other problems include expected reductions in the amount of motor vehicle tax income the county receives from the state and continued costs of paying short-term loans that finance the county's land projects at the Missoula Development Park, former shops property and spare jail land.

By law, the county can't finance a deficit in its general fund. Ellis said the 2000 budget is expected to be $226,656 short when the fiscal year ends in June, and that money must be the first thing paid by the 2001 budget. After that comes another roughly $2 million in anticipated expenses more than the county's anticipated $15.3 million in 2001 revenue.

The commissioners plan to start crunching numbers June 5 and present a proposed 2001 budget at a public hearing July 26. They will debate its results over the next two weeks, and attend a second hearing Aug. 2. They must file a final budget Aug. 7.

"There is no way I can make a cut without laying off staff," Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer Vicki Zeier told the commissioners. "And most of my staff are single moms. I need time to know how much you're going to cut so I can prepare my people. I can't do this in just two weeks."

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