County budget

Although Cowlitz County has not yet adopted a 2018-19 biennial budget, the county commissioners already have some good news about next year’s spending plan.

The projected 2018 deficit now is expected to be much smaller than anticipated in September, when preliminary budget figures projected a $7.1 million general fund deficit that could have triggered layoffs or a big dip into county savings.

During the county commissioner meeting Tuesday morning, Financial Management Director Claire Hauge the projected deficit is down to about $3 million. This is because county departments sharply underspent their 2017 budgets, in part because of high employee turnover (meaning jobs were vacant for a while). That unspent money — which the county calls “a return” — simply rolls over to the next year, Hauge said.

The budget “return” was 8 percent of the operating budget, an unusually high amount, Hauge said.

“I’ve never seen an 8-percent return before. It’s usually in the 3-to-5 percent range,” she said.

Although that still leaves a $3 million deficit, Hauge said additional revenue from the Headquarters landfill ($2 million in 2017, with $1 million projected for the next two years), and cuts from the 2018-19 preliminary budget’s expenditures should cover that shortfall. If necessary, the county will dip into reserve funds.

Hauge on Tuesday asked the commissioners to postpone a public presentation of their biannual budget draft until next week’s commissioner meeting, because Financial Management was still working out the kinks in regards to revenues and staffing levels.

However, the county did start progressing on some budgetary items:

The commissioners approved Public Works’ six-year plan (a state requirement) as well as their two-year plan (a county requirement). Director Susan Eugenis said the department planned for projects costing $3.9 million for 2018 and $6.7 million for 2019.

The county designated $35.3 million over the next two years for capital projects, which include roof repairs for the Hall of Justice, the Industrial Way/Oregon Way project, rural economic development projects and constructing a new morgue. The morgue’s estimated cost — the architect’s official cost won’t be available until after the budget’s deadline — is $7.5 million.

Sewer and water rates in the Ryderwood, Toutle, Camelot, Cook Ferry and Ostrander areas will be raised 3 percent starting Jan. 16. Those rates were raised the same amount in 2017 and 2016.

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