by Jill Lufrano
Courtesy of the Sparks Tribune
RENO — Washoe County commissioners Monday approved a $169 million fiscal year 2012-2013 budget with no layoffs through June 2013. The budget eliminates 51 vacant full-time employee positions and calls for $6.3 million in departmental operating reductions, while providing an 8 percent end balance and no tax rate increase.
However, several county employees face salary cuts this fiscal year, and the 51 eliminated positions put public safety at risk, according to some county employee groups.
“The county’s budget as-is will continue the devastation to law enforcement and other public safety programs of recent years. In the (Washoe County) Sheriff’s Office), 28 vacant positions will be lost, and casting the elimination of vacant positions as a net-zero loss of law enforcement personnel is misleading to the public,” said Tim Ross, president of Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Association (WCSDA).
“The real result will be fewer officers on the streets and less-safe communities. Moreover, the $2.4 million in cuts (in addition to the $21 million in cuts over the last three years) to the sheriff’s office budget ensures a further reduction in public safety services for Washoe County residents,” Ross said in a statement. “The county’s own survey shows Washoe residents are increasingly concerned about cuts to public safety. A majority of respondents think public safety should be more adequately funded.”
Ross said the office is at minimum staffing most of the time as it is, and with the time it takes to hire a deputy and put them through the training process, the decision not to hire additional deputies puts the county’s residents at risk. Sheriff’s associations are being asked to take additional 2.4 percent salary cuts in the coming fiscal year. The negotiations have not been finalized.
Washoe County Manager Katy Simon said the county appreciates and respects the concerns of all departments, including those of Washoe County deputies and other employees who have “given so much during this long economic downturn when we’ve had to budget with $155-plus million less in revenues.”
“The reality is that the sheriff’s office budget grew from 30 percent of the general fund budget to 38 percent of the general fund budget, while other services have declined in proportion,” Simon said in a statement.
The sheriff’s office operates with some 35 vacant positions at any given time throughout the year, and Sheriff Mike Haley reached an agreement with the county to keep some 28 positions open in a vacancy pool so people can be hired where there are critical needs, Simon said.
“There are no easy or welcome solutions with the kind of cuts that local governments in Nevada have faced. The Board of County Commissioners has placed the highest priority on public safety in every year of this Great Recession, and will continue to do so,” Simon said.
According to Simon, there was no way to confirm the statement that the sheriff’s office had been cut by $21 million. The sheriff’s office budget grew, according to Simon, by $13.5 million from 2005 to 2012, and with a budget of $83 million in fiscal year 2012 was only $7.7 million less than it was at its peak of spending in 2009. In contrast, Public Works lost $13.8 million from 2005 to 2012, and lost 49 percent from its peak year, she said.
The county’s two major sources of general fund revenue — property tax and consolidated taxes — have declined by 15 percent since the fiscal year of 2007-08, which has contributed significantly to the decline in revenue used to provide services, according to spokeswoman Nancy Leuenhagen. This will further impact the number of positions that the county has to serve its citizens as the ratio of Washoe County staff to population has decreased by 27 percent since 2005. While the Consumer Price Index has increased by 12 percent since 2007, the general fund expenditures have decreased by 9 percent, creating significant pressures on service provisions.
Simon said while the impact of the cuts will be difficult, it’s important to point out that no reserve funds were used.
“We reduced our target ending fund balance to help close the shortfall this year,” Simon said. “We budgeted 8 percent of the unassigned net resources to be available at year-end to tide us over into the next year, compared to the 8.3 percent we had proposed to set aside back in February. We do not require the use of reserves to balance this budget.”
Due to the fact that labor agreements are not concluded with all of the county labor associations, departments had to plan for the worst case scenario. The adopted budget that was proposed is balanced without association wage concessions, which was made possible by eliminating vacant positions.
“Washoe County has reduced our staffing from 8.1 employees per thousand population in 2006, to only 5.8 employees today in response to the dramatic reduction in revenues. We do understand that being unable to fill vacancies is very hard on employees who have to take up the slack when those positions aren’t filled, and very hard on the public which must endure ongoing service impacts. We remain hopeful that we can reach conclusions on labor agreements that can free up some, if not all, of those positions to be filled so that employees have more help.” Simon said. “Wage concessions for management, commissioners and Juvenile Services employees consistent with what has been asked of other employees are budgeted in this budget and will continue through 2012-13. In addition, the courts have also agreed to look at wage concessions once the county’s labor agreements are concluded.”
Unlike many local governments in Nevada, the county will also be transferring almost $19 million into the trust that has been established for the long-term liability for retiree health benefits. The county negotiated with its employees to end that retiree health insurance benefit for employees hired after July 1, 2010. Other aspects of the budget are:
Washoe County hopes to receive a settlement from the state for a portion of the property taxes that were diverted from county resources; $6 million over two years will go directly into funding state-authorized infrastructure projects that will also create local jobs, and $1.25 million is proposed to go toward entirely eliminating a health insurance premium increase for employees and retirees next year. Commissioners also gave direction that, if and when that settlement is received, they would like to consider allocating a portion of it towards hiring additional deputies.