On first glance, the Jefferson County budget seems straightforward: The County anticipates total spending of $22.1 million in the 2019-20 budget year, down 3.3% from its 2018-19 budget. State law limits how much counties can increase property taxes from year to year, so there are rarely big swings in the overall finances: Actual spending in the most recent fiscal year totaled $14,805,909, up just 5% from three years earlier.
But the top-line numbers mask details that reflect shifting economic realities, demographics, and governmental priorities. Health insurance costs for employees are budgeted to increase by 18% from last year’s expense, and by nearly 60% from four years ago, causing the County to investigate options such as self-insuring. Population growth and other factors have increased demand for services ranging from solid waste hauling to vaccinations. Old roads and bridges must be repaired or replaced.
Much of this expense is funded by money from outside the County. The $36,018 bio-control program, for example, relies on a state Department of Agriculture support the control of spotted knapweed, a noxious weed, with cultivated beetles. The County receives $50,000 a year from the U.S. Forest Service under the Secure Rural Schools Act; it has accumulated $277,032, and federal law requires that the money be spent within the next two years. (It’s considering a new pick-up truck for the sheriff’s office.)
What’s more, the budget is punctuated by dozens of special purpose districts that control their own funds but run them through the County’s finances. Rural improvement districts and rural maintenance districts finance or maintain services to citizens outside incorporated areas – funded by assessments on those residents. And three districts are dedicated to mosquito control. Often, unspent funds in these districts roll over from year to year: For example, the Saddle Mountain Rural Maintenance District, near Montana City, had a $124,543 budget in 2018-19, spent none of it, and now has a pot of $160,020 – which it may or may not spend this year.
To help explain these intricacies, The Monitor went through the budget, line by line, with Commissioner Bob Mullen and other county staff. Here are some highlights, comparing this year’s budget to the 2018-19 budget and actual spending. (A number in red indicates an increase from the previous year; a number in green is a decrease.)