By now, it is unlikely that anyone is unaware that the Legislature is trying to overcome a huge deficit as they work on the budget for the next biennium. No doubt there are things in the budget that can be cut without causing too much pain; to make up $27 billion, serious cuts will have to be made. To put it into perspective, if the entire amount spent on criminal justice for the last budget – that is, DPS, the prison system, the juvenile system, probation, the Attorney General’s Office, and the court system – AND the rainy day fund was put together, it still would not cover the current deficit. As programs are discussed in the legislature, it is easy to sit back in our peaceful community and presume that they will have nothing to do with us. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Counties are funded by taxes and monies given as grants through the state and federal government. Our tax base is in relatively good shape, thanks to the wind turbines and businesses that have followed them into the region. State law provides that, if the County Commissioners set a tax rate that will bring in more than 8% more than was brought in the previous year, the voters may require a rollback election. The timing of the release of the budget and the timetable for rollback petitions and elections is such that the new budget will have been in place a couple of months before the results of the election are known. If the voters choose to require that the tax rate be reset, it “rolls back” to a rate that will bring in the maximum allowed by law. That leaves the Commissioners scrambling to adjust a budget already partially spent - not a pleasant prospect.
While income is limited, expenses are not. The Indigent Defense Act of 2001 requires increased funding for court appointed counsel. State-wide, costs in 2009 were $186.3 million, of which $11.7 million was reimbursed to the counties. Inmates who have violated parole are often kept in county jails until the state can hold a hearing and either revoke or continue the parole. In addition to causing overcrowding and extra medical expenses on the local level, the cost to counties last year for holding these inmates was $27 million – which is not reimbursed. All of us have noticed that fuel costs have risen; budgeting these for county equipment, oil and asphalt for road work, and for law enforcement vehicles is next to impossible. The federal government was to reimburse the counties for the cost of the new voting equipment. It had to be purchased by a set time – but there is no requirement that the money be returned within a particular time period. In other words, the counties loaned the federal government untold thousands of dollars. In short, while there is a state imposed limit on increasing county revenue, there is no such limit on increased expenses.
When the state reduces the funds it gives to counties but doesn’t relax the standards for various offices, it puts the burden on the counties to come up with the extra money. For instance, there are regulations which require that all public elevators be inspected and maintained to certain standards; the cost of that must be paid. Juvenile probation is one of the areas in which the state mandates that certain staffing levels and standards be maintained. That department has normally received grants from Austin which help keep it funded; as those grants dry up, the standards will not be relaxed, requiring either more money from the county or violation of the standards. In other words, the county must make up the difference or face paying a penalty.
As with any household, the Commissioners then look at their expenses, and try to determine what could be cut. Those are the financial decisions that will bring the reality of a $27 billion shortfall straight into Nolan County. (Obviously, cutting state employees, such as Child and Adult Protective Services, TSTC, and the like also has an effect as it limits the disposable income in the community – but that is a topic for another day)
Nolan County does what it can to make life easier for its citizens. Each year, funds are given to the volunteer fire departments to help keep them going. Money is given to the museum, the child welfare board and the county welfare board. No commissioner would volunteer to cut the funds to these entities, but if faced with a choice between them and a cut that would bring fines down on the county from Austin, these are the areas that will have to be examined.
No one wants their favorite state service to be cut, whether it is parks, maintenance of historic areas, building roads, education, or care of foster children. The uncomfortable fact is that a deficit of $27billion doesn’t leave many choices. As information comes out of Austin concerning departments and services that are on the chopping block, take the time to have your voice heard. Let the legislators know what your priorities are, then become involved in the process of helping to keep Nolan County solvent. What happens in Austin won’t stay there…it will come here.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org