County Judge David Silva said he and the four commissioners need to cut less than $10,000 from the 2009-10 spending plan to begin the next year with a balanced budget.
The proposed $7.1 million budget will finance county operations from Oct. 1, 2009, through Sept. 30, 2010.
“We are very, very close to adopting a balanced budget for the first time in I don’t know how long. And right now it looks like we will not need a tax increase,” said Silva, who inherited a deficit budget when he assumed office in January 2007.
Silva and the commissioners have raised taxes twice in the past two years — 2 cents in September 2007 and 3 cents in September 2008 — in an attempt to balance the budget.
They also cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county office budgets each year.
Silva and the commissioners began preparing the 2009-10 budget earlier this month.
They reviewed the proposed budgets of each department two weeks ago.
Those proposed spending plans called for an additional $1 million in spending.
“We told them they needed to cut between 3 percent and 5 percent from their budgets like the budget committee recommended, but it’s like some of the departments didn’t hear a word we said,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Susan Stasny recalled, clearly exasperated. “Some of the departments did exactly what we asked of them — most of them, I’d say — and cut their budgets like we asked. But some of them did not.”
At that point in the budget process, Stasny suggested that each department redo its spending plans based on the amount of funding each received in 2008-09 — and to cut expenses if possible.
Her fellow commissioners agreed and the department heads were later notified and asked to resubmit their budgets.
Naturally, some cost increases were expected and will be allocated, such as for postage and utilities, Stasny said.
But commissioners were able to slash the proposed spending plan by thousands of dollars off the newly resubmitted budgets, Silva said.
County Auditor Susana Morón told commissioners during one of the budget workshops that they needed only to cut another $2,500 from the proposed spending plan to adopt a balanced budget this fall.
“That’s the kind of good news we want to hear,” Silva said.
He attributed much of the success to the commissioners.
“It has been our policy since I took office to cut expenses and the commissioners bought into that,” he explained. “They have watched every penny.”
Indeed, commissioners cut $35 from the proposed budget on Monday when they agreed to change county policy regarding county-owned vehicles being driven home at night.
Specifically, commissioners voted to stop all three employees of the Bee County Community Affairs Department from taking county-owned vehicles home at night.
Dennis DeWitt, director of the department, said he and the other two employees take their vehicles home so they can respond to an emergency.
DeWitt also is director of the county’s health department and veterans service officer. His two-member staff is composed of Ron Fritz and Oscar Tolivar Jr., who also serves as assistant veterans service officer.
Taking the vehicles home only increases the mileage by $35 per month, he figures.
“What we have to ask ourselves is do we want to jeopardize the safety and welfare of 30,000 people to save $35?” he asked the court. “We never know when an emergency will occur.”
Precinct 3 Commissioner Eloy Rodriguez, who serves on the budget committee, said he doesn’t believe all three employees need to take a vehicle home each evening.
“It just seems like it’s too much: three people from the same office taking three vehicles home every day,” Rodriguez explained, adding that he questioned whether the assistant veterans service officer would even need to respond to an emergency.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Carlos Salazar Jr. recommended, and his fellow commissioners agreed, to a compromise in which one person in DeWitt’s office would be allowed to take a vehicle home at night.
They left it up to DeWitt to determine which employee would be on call in times of an emergency.
After Monday’s meeting, Stasny noted that commissioners paid a $150 bill for brake repairs for one of the vehicles.
“So it’s not just $35 a month expense,” she said.
County leaders still have until Sept. 30 to trim the proposed budget further.
“We’re not finished with the (proposed) budget yet,” Silva said. “We’re still looking at it, looking for cuts we can make. We’re not there yet, not where we want to be, but we’re close.”