October 15, 2010  BY June Pitchford
Pitchford is the Boone County auditor.

Pitchford is the Boone County auditor.

As the rhetoric ramps up in the Boone County presiding commissioner’s race, we hear alarming accusations about the county’s budget practices and overall financial condition.

Specifically, candidate Ed Robb has leveled several serious charges against the county and accused the county of shoddy budget practices and fiscal negligence.

As the county’s accounting and budget officer, I am alarmed any time someone lobs such criticisms but particularly so when coming from someone who claims to be a knowledgeable expert of governmental budgeting and finances.

You, too, should be alarmed. If these accusations are true, you should waste no time in turning all guilty incumbents out of public office. On the other hand, if these accusations are nothing more than unfounded political rhetoric, you will want to deliver a vote of “No, thanks!” to the candidate espousing such bogus and misleading accusations. But how can you know what is true when you hear conflicting claims about the county’s budget?

Let me assure you that Boone County’s annual budget is balanced — and always will be. The county is legally required to adopt a balanced budget.

So, what exactly do we mean by a “balanced budget?” A budget is balanced when the total resources of a fund equal or exceed the approved spending plan for that fund. Within this definition, “total resources” consists of two important components: revenues expected to be earned in the upcoming year as well as carryover resources (fund balance) that will be brought forward into the next year. State law requires the budget officer to estimate the carryover resources that will be available to the county in the following year and combine that amount with new revenues expected to be earned and then craft a spending plan within these total resources.

Deficit spending (i.e., spending more than the total available resources) is illegal and prohibited. Interestingly, county budget law (written many decades ago) actually contemplates that the county will adopt an annual budget that spends every dime available to it, thus operating with no fund balances at all.

Thankfully, my predecessors as well as previous and current Boone County commissioners understand the importance of fund balances in meeting cash-flow requirements and maintaining fiscal stability. And although any given annual budget may authorize spending a portion of available fund balances, careful attention is given to ensure that minimum levels are maintained. In so doing, county commissioners demonstrate fiscal discipline and prudence well beyond basic statutory requirements.

When one of the candidates for presiding commissioner accuses the county of “appalling budgeting practices,” he is simply overlooking the routine and prominent role of carryover resources within the county’s annual budget process. He is focusing exclusively on the new revenues expected to be earned in the upcoming fiscal year and completely ignoring important carryover resources. Whether this oversight is the result of ignorance, carelessness or intentional mis-characterization, such an error is cause for concern. Don’t be alarmed or mislead by such accusations.

At the same time, I would be remiss not to remind everyone that county finances are tighter and more uncertain than they have ever been in my 20 years in office. During the past several years, sales tax revenue (the county’s primary revenue source) has declined along with real estate recording fees, building permit revenue and several important state reimbursements.

Thus far, the county has navigated the economic storm by relying on a combination of cost-savings measures and careful use of carryover resources. The county’s budget has not authorized salary increases since 2008; machinery, vehicle and equipment replacement schedules have been revised and extended; vacant positions have been eliminated (where justified by reduced need); and a wide array of cost-savings measures have been employed (including such things as altering and reusing existing law enforcement uniforms instead of purchasing new ones).

Despite what one county commissioner candidate would have you believe, your county officials are keenly aware of the current fiscal challenges and are committed to balancing the budget while maintaining high service levels for the people of Boone County.

Previously in this column, I wrote about the dangers of the county’s over-dependence on sales tax revenue. I also called attention to the erosion of the local sales tax base resulting from the ongoing shift to a service-based economy coupled with ever-expanding Internet sales. These realities persist, and their impact on local government revenues is exacerbated by the lingering economic recession.

Meanwhile, demand for basic county services escalates (law enforcement and civil service, criminal prosecution, judicial operations, jail operations, juvenile detention, public health, road maintenance, etc.). Despite county leaders’ best efforts to lower costs and judiciously use carryover resources, we might be faced with the need to reduce service levels, increase revenues or implement a combination of both.

Your county leaders will wrestle with these difficult fiscal issues in the coming weeks as work on the fiscal year 2011 budget continues. A proposed budget is due by Nov. 15, and the commission is tentatively scheduled to adopt the budget before Dec. 31.

If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at 886-4275 or jpitchford@boonecountymo.org. Dates for budget work sessions and budget hearings are posted on the county commission’s calendar (www.showmeboone.com/COMMISSION/) or by contacting the commission office at 886-4305.

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