Siskiyou County's budget puzzle won't get easier

Danielle Jester
Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey speaks to the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors during the board's discussion of the County's budget for the new fiscal year. Board Chair Ray Haupt and District 4 Supervisor Lisa Nixon are pictured.

“Okay, 2019: It’s not going to be fun,” Siskiyou County Administrator Terry Barber said after the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors’ discussion of the budget for the new fiscal year.

“I’d like to say it’s going to be easier next year, but it’s going to be even more difficult, I’m sure,” Board Chair Ray Haupt conveyed candidly.

The board’s discussion of the budget for fiscal year 2018/19 was sobering and at times grim. Barber’s PowerPoint presentation reviewing the various financial realties for the coming year included a slide entitled, “Not Living Within ‘Means,’” which showed a bar graph illustrating the county’s revenues versus expenses from fiscal year 2013/14 through 2018/19.

The graph shows that the expenses exceed the revenues for every year except 2017/18. However, the difference is slight; Barber explained that the difference between each year’s revenues and expenses represents less than one percent of the overall budget. “It’s a very tight budget,” she noted. And indeed, the county’s general fund balance is 91 cents. That meager amount means that budget cuts still need to be made, Barber reported.

The Siskiyou Power Authority fund is “dangerously low,” Barber related, especially considering that the county’s Power Purchase Agreement with Pacific Power – which was entered into in 1983 – expires in 2020. The County will be exploring all options for a new contract, but the significance of the end of the contract with Pacific Power cannot be overstated, as it provides a $1 million backfill for the county’s general fund. Fiscal year 2019/20 may be the last year that the general fund can rely on those monies.

The power authority is also contributing $686,000 in matching funds for the new Siskiyou County Jail Project. The jail is going to be one of the County’s main focuses next year, Barber said. Over $3 million from various sources will be funneled into that project in the coming years. “Staff resources will be consumed by the project,” Barber’s presentation states bluntly.

The County’s travel fund for employees to attend various trainings and other similar events is set at $283,573 for the new fiscal year – a 40 percent increase from the previous year. District 3 Supervisor Michael Kobseff questioned whether the County’s revenue had gone up enough to justify that increase. “We’ve increased salaries,” he said, adding, “You can’t have everything.”

The travel fund figure was not altered, but Barber did say that county staff should utilize online, in house and webinar trainings when possible, instead of eating up travel expenses. She also conceded that there needs to be a better way to hold department heads accountable for how they use county resources.

County staffing cuts are being made, some through attrition and some through freezing. County position vacancies are currently being frozen for 3 months, Barber mentioned, a strategy that is being employed in order to avoid cuts in other areas.

Labor costs are increasing though, and Barber told the board that cuts will need to be made in labor, programs, or other areas. Certain county departments are losing employees to greener pastures elsewhere. The county’s road maintenance department and the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office are both dealing with that issue.

Sheriff Jon Lopey explained that his office has lost multiple officers to other agencies that offer a higher salary and/or signing bonuses. While the board understood his concerns, District 2 Supervisor Ed Valenzuela did state that the sheriff’s department receives the lion’s share of the general fund.

Despite the problems Lopey detailed, he also expressed a great deal of gratitude for the board’s funding of his department, as well as their continued support of the new jail project.

He also told the board, “I think we’re being very prudent and very cautious,” referring to how his office spends the funds allocated to it. “We’ll save money any way we can while still providing a high degree of safety and service to our public,” he added confidently. He advocated for using the old jail as a mental healthcare facility, which would help keep more funds within the county and allow patients requiring certain mental health services to access that help locally.

The County’s budget for FY 2018/19 – in the amount of $149,689,911.29 – was adopted unanimously on Tuesday by the board of supervisors.