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County to cut $6 million

With the return of an independent audit emphasizing the need for more cash flow in Washington County, Mayor Dan Eldridge is on a mission – to cut the county’s budget by 5 percent for the next fiscal year.
“Will I be the most popular guy in Washington County in six months? Not a chance,” Eldridge said. “But we don’t have a choice. We’ve spent all we can spend.”
A 5 percent cut equates to eliminating $6 million in expenditures, something Eldridge admits will not be easy.
“We’ve never had to do this before and that is what is going to make this such a painful experience – and it will be painful,” Eldridge said. “Every department is going to have to scrutinize its budget.”
While Washington County has been “blessed over the last many years with steady growth throughout the county,” Eldridge said spending was growing right along with it.
The county began seeing some financial strain after 2007, when it fully leveraged its cash flow to finance $131 million for the building of two new schools – Grandview and Ridgeview.
Eldridge said leaders at the time were fully aware of what they were doing, but had been counting on the continued growth and revenue of the previous years to make up for the leveraged cash flow.
When the economy went south, cash became unavailable for the most part.
“We got into the mode of deficit spending,” Eldridge said of the last three years. “We were taking out of the fund balance to balance our budget each year. In 2010, we depleted the fund balance to the point of not having any available money.”
While there is some money currently in the county’s fund balance, that amount is close to the minimum suggested by the state for Washington County to keep in the account.
“When you get in a bind like this, that is the time you can be most creative,” Eldridge said. “There’s a ton of little things we could be doing that could ultimately add up to a significant amount of money.”
Eldridge hopes to make up $2 million of the $6 million in cuts with a debt restructuring plan already in the works.
“I’m also looking at offering a retirement incentive that could potentially yield significant savings,” Eldridge said. “And I am going to encourage office holders to look at savings between now and the end of this fiscal year that will help cushion the cuts of the next fiscal year.”
Eldridge said he will be taking a hard look at capital expenditures, determining what “we absolutely have to do and what can wait a year.”
Despite the “cash flow crunch,” Eldridge said there are a few areas in the county budget where he will not be looking for additional savings.
“I don’t want to be nickel and diming the county employees,” he said. “They are the greatest asset of this county. They haven’t had a raise in three years and there is frustration. They feel like they are not appreciated and overlooked.
“I think there are other areas where we can make the cuts.”
Eldridge also said there is no room for more cuts in the school system’s budget, but added there is also no money for any additional funding for the schools.
With all indications being that the economy will not be going “gangbusters” in three years, Eldridge said the county Budget Committee will have to look beyond this next year.
“We cannot be in a mode of year to year right now. From everything I’ve read, predictions have said there will be no real growth through 2014,” he said. “We’re going to have to compromise with each other to make this happen. We’re going to make good business decisions.”