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Cash-strapped county begins talk of hiring freeze, some pay cuts

Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors began detailed scrutiny of the county budget Tuesday at its special session with attempts at a hiring freeze, reduction of board salaries and changes in how the county roads are maintained. There were also some not so veiled threats about salary cuts for county employees.

These issues come on the heels of a projected 28 percent drop in agricultural land valuations.

Jim Gustafson launched the budget discussion by making a motion to eliminate the extra $500 salary that is paid to the board's chair.

"I want to start this discussion by trying to make some cuts," Gustafson said. "We need to start nibbling around the edges... start making some cuts before we start looking at levy rates."

In the discussion among board members following Gustafson's motion, it was determined that the board doesn't have the power to change supervisor salaries. Only the compensation board can set elected officials' salaries.

Gustafson then tried a motion requiring that any vehicles to be purchased by the county first be reviewed and voted on by the board. That motion was carried.

Next it was Bill Lanphere's turn. He proposed that members of the board not be reimbursed for travel to and from regular meetings. The motion was defeated.

It was Lanphere who began treading on particularly sacred ground with the mention of an immediate countywide hiring freeze.

"I move to institute an immediate hiring freeze for all full- and part-time replacement employees," he said. He said department heads could still plead their cases for exceptions.

"We need to start sending a message to department heads, employees and the public."

Lanphere's motion was amended to exclude part-time people and was tabled for two weeks.

Gustafson then went to work on the roads.

"We have to cut somewhere," he said. "The general fund is maxed out and the valuations are being hacked to death. We have to try cutting some things around the edges.

"We have to go on record that we have looked at better planning."

Gustafson said that one way would be to take a harder look at road maintenance and thereby managing fuel expenditures.

"We are not managing well if our road crews are dragging gravel roads during dry weather," he said. "I would like to make a motion that in 2004 we would eliminate one motor-grader route as a way to try to solve fuel expenditures.

"Why do we grade roads? For cosmetic reasons? The road in front of our house was graded during the drought to what purpose?"

When the motion was defeated 3 to 1 with Lorna Burnside abstaining, Gustafson told the board that if it couldn't make cuts, it couldn't raise the levy.

Gustafson then turned to the County Farm, asking if the revenues from the harvest could start going into the general fund. The board agreed after some discussion.

It was then that Gustafson, who seemed to be running out of patience, let the ax fall.

"I'm not asking for the board to do something radical," Gustafson said. "But if we don't start doing something, we're going to have to start cutting employees salaries."

Gustafson said he wasn't ready to come down on employees, not until the board gets through everything else.

But, he added, the board could pull funding to non-mandated programs in the county like the county fairgrounds and economic development.

Lanphere said the board should begin discussion on yearly pay increases.

Although the motion was withdrawn, the board talked about his motion of limiting all new employees who have been with the county less than six months and employees in new positions less than six months to be bypassed for yearly pay increases.

"We have to start sending a message," Lanphere said. "The money isn't here, guys."

The board agreed to put new county clerks and new road employees on new pay schedules.

New clerks would be hired at 45 percent of the elected official's salary who is in charge of the office in which they are hired. The clerks' pay schedule would top out at 62 percent, moving up at 2 percent increments every four years, with a 3 percent jump in the last increment.

Road workers are now hired at two dollars below their rate. This would change to three dollars below rate, increasing to rate in two years. In other words, if the rate is now $15, a driver is hired at $13 an hour, increasing to $15 after two years of employment.

Also discussed was the possibility of the county pursuing delinquent taxes as a source of revenue.

Burnside said that the county could take over pursuit of delinquent taxes owed to the state if the state had not been able to recover the taxes after three months.

The county could receive 35 percent of the recovered taxes.

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