Budget officer says the county is ‘out of money’

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

Plumas County’s bleak financial outlook only seems to grow worse each week.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors voted to schedule a series of seven workshops aimed at cutting another $1.8 million to balance the general fund budget.

During their meeting Tuesday, Aug. 7, the supervisors discussed, and sometimes argued about, the options available.

The county has already cut $1.4 million of the original $3.2 million deficit. Finding the other $1.8 million could involve further employee concessions and layoffs. It could mean eliminating some traditional county services all together.

Board Chairman Robert Meacher set the tone for last week’s discussion by quoting Winston Churchill.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re broke,” Meacher said. “... Now we really have to start thinking.”

“It’s not a pretty picture by any means. But this is the picture. This is reality.”
Susan Scarlett, Acting Budget Officer

County employees took pay and benefit cuts to help balance this year’s budget. They likely will be asked to absorb another cutback in the 2012-13 budget.

Most county departments were directed to cut their budgets by 10 percent. Some have already done so, some haven’t.

The supervisors asked those departments that have slashed 10 percent to make an additional 10 percent cut. Departments that haven’t made a 10 percent reduction were directed to cut by 20 percent.

Some of the reductions will likely come from furloughs and reduced workweeks.

“It’s not a pretty picture by any means. But this is the picture. This is reality,” said acting budget officer Susan Scarlett.

The supervisors and county department heads thanked Scarlett for her no-nonsense, bottom-line approach to dealing with the budget crisis.

“I don’t like the news she presents. But I do like how she gets it,” Supervisor Jon Kennedy said.

“I only know one way to do it,” Scarlett responded. “And that’s to tell the truth.”

She said the truth is the county is “out of money.”

Scarlett, who is the finance officer for the city of Portola, was hired to guide the county through the budget process after the supervisors fired County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad last fall.

Scarlett stressed the need for the county to update its master fee schedule, which reportedly hasn’t been done consistently over the past several years. She said the county needs to address its retirement and sick-leave benefits. And she identified departments that have not yet made 10 percent cuts, for whatever reason. She admitted that some departments might not be able to make further cuts.

She also noted that the elected county department heads — not including the supervisors — hadn’t taken the 3 percent cut in benefits that they agreed to.

Although Scarlett said the budget savings associated with those cuts wouldn’t put much of a dent in the deficit, the board considered them symbolic at the very least — especially considering county employees are facing more cuts.

According to County Clerk-Recorder Kathy Williams and District Attorney David Hollister, the elected department heads were willing and ready to take the cuts. But they said they wanted language included in their contracts that included a pay comparison with other counties. The comparison would likely show that Plumas County elected department heads are already underpaid.

“We are not opposed to taking the 3 percent cut,” Williams said. “We just need to have the language clarified from county counsel.”

The supervisors agreed that local elected officials were paid less than those in other counties Plumas’ size. But they blasted the elected department heads for not doing their part.

Supervisor Terry Swofford called it “a stall tactic.”

Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said the pay comparison “didn’t matter. If somebody did a comparison and they said you are underpaid $50,000, we can’t remedy that,” she said.

Regardless, the supervisors said the pay-comparison language would be added to the contract. It was expected to be finalized by Aug. 14.

Unless the county eliminates non-essential services like the library, museum, parks, county fair and senior services, filling most of the $1.8 million gap will have to come from the county’s workers.

“The biggest part, if you look at the budget, that’s what it comes down to: wages and salaries and benefits,” Supervisor Lori Simpson said.

Simpson, who was on the other side of the table when she was county union representative, said she understands the sacrifice the county is asking of its employees.

“If you are working with unions … I’ve been on that side. I know all the arguments,” Simpson said. “In labor negotiations you can’t just say ‘do it.’ You have to negotiate in good faith.”

“We can do it in good faith. We can just do it quicker,” Kennedy responded.

Kennedy said he was looking forward to the budget workshops. They were set for Aug. 14, 17, 21, 24, 27, 28 and 29. “I want to take another swing at it,” he said.

In the absence of a CAO, Kennedy said he has taken it upon himself to study the county budget line-by-line.

“Every single day I dig through, I try to think of things,” Kennedy said. “And I want to come here (before the board) and say: ‘Guys, I figured it out.’ ... But there’s nothing to figure out. There’s no answer to fix this $1.8 million problem.”


Master fee schedule

As part of the budget process, the supervisors directed department heads to amend the county’s master fee schedule. The schedule sets the fees the county charges for various services.

A public hearing on the amended fee schedule was scheduled to take place during the supervisors’ Sept. 4 meeting.


Moment of silence

Prior to the meeting, Chairman Meacher asked for a moment of silence in memory of Lee Roy Thrall.

Thrall, the husband of Supervisor Sherrie Thrall, passed away unexpectedly Saturday afternoon, Aug. 4, in Susanville.


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