County Budget Cuts Coming

GRAND RAPIDS — The preliminary 2008 general operating budget for KentCounty currently stands at $169.1 million. But that number has to change because it exceeds next year’s estimated revenues by $4.7 million.

At least $2.7 million has to be trimmed from the deficit over the next few months, as the county is willing to dip into the fund balance for only $2 million. That reserve account, along with a low debt ratio, has been a key factor in earning the county its across-the-board Triple A bond rating from the three rating agencies.

“These are two areas where KentCounty has been historically strong,” said Daryl Delabbio, county administrator and controller.

The unreserved and unrestricted portion of the fund balance should end this fiscal year at just under $10.6 million, and pulling $4.7 million from the account would wipe out 45 percent of it in one swift yank. County officials want that withdrawal to be closer to 20 percent and for the projected shortfall next year to be $2 million or less.

So department heads have been advised to use zero-based budgeting to put together their financial plans, and they’ve been told that a freeze on new positions has been extended for a fifth consecutive year.

Managers will also have to work within the salary and benefits parameters set by the human resources department.

Delabbio said department heads have done a good job at maintaining costs in the non-personnel areas the past few years. But the county has wrestled with heath insurance and pharmaceutical costs, which totaled about $20 million last year. Since the county became self-funded, those costs have grown about 12 percent a year.

Delabbio said it is too early to tell if the 2008 budget could absorb another increase of that size. In comparison, he said, the county’s labor cost, with a largely unionized work force, has risen by an average of 2.7 percent annually for the past seven years.

The general fund received another blow recently when Delabbio said House Speaker Andy Dillon told him the state is likely to keep the liquor tax receipts it normally shares with counties this year to balance the fiscal year 2007 state general budget. That means KentCounty won’t be receiving the estimated $3.2 million it expected.

“This is an absolute tragedy on the part of the state Legislature,” said Commissioner Harold Mast.

The county sends half of those dollars to network 180 for countywide substance abuse programs and deposits the other half into its general fund. The revenue loss will mean a cut of 20 percent in substance abuse programs. Delabbio added that Dillon said the state hopes to resume sharing that revenue with the counties next year.

“I just get the feeling that state government doesn’t care about public safety,” said Commissioner Art Tanis.

“It’s a non-partisan issue. Everyone down there is to blame for this,” added Commission Vice chairman Dick Vander Molen.

Statewide receipts from the liquor tax will total roughly $50 million this year. About $16 million will go to Cobo Hall, Detroit‘s convention center. The rest was expected to be distributed among counties.

CountyFiscal Services Director Robert White said the $1.6 million in liquor tax revenue was not part of the $4.7 million deficit. Delabbio said he wants to stop using the reserve to plug the hole in the general fund by 2009, or 2010 at the latest.

The ratings agencies renewed the county’s Triple A status this spring, a score Kent has held for nearly 10 years. The fiscal year 2008 general fund budget is scheduled to come before county commissioners in September. The county’s new fiscal year begins Jan. 1.

“To set these goals seems pretty easy,” said Vander Molen, who is also chairman of the Finance Committee.

“But when push comes to shove and the rubber hits the road, we have to stand together.”     

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