The County Commission will get a chance to break a seven-year tradition this week, just like the county’s Finance Committee did last week.
Commissioners will adopt seven fiscal-year budgets Thursday that total $345.6 million in appropriations for 2010. Six have deficits — and that red ink means six reserves will have to be dug into for $25.7 million.
Of the seven budgets, none are more important than the general fund, which will pay for most of the services the county provides throughout next year, and at least $2.7 million will have to be taken from the fund’s reserve account to balance it. The shortfall could rise by another $275,000 if commissioners follow a recommendation the Finance Committee made last week, and if they also approve that amount for the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board.
Doing so would mark the first time the county has awarded general-fund tax dollars to the preservation board and its Purchase of Development Rights program. Commissioners have been fervently unwilling to take that action ever since the commission ratified the ordinance in 2002. But the Finance Committee broke the habit last week.
By the slimmest of margins, a 5-to-4 vote, committee members backed a transfer of $275,000 from the general fund to the preservation board. The money is intended to be the first installment of a three-year, $1 million commitment to preserving farmland and orchards in the county, until a millage can be placed before voters. Then an approved millage would fund the effort.
The restriction on using tax dollars to support the program wasn’t written into the PDR ordinance; it was more a verbal pledge that commissioners made almost unanimously back then.
“We’re laying off people and we’re starting a new venture for $275,000?” questioned Commissioner and committee member Art Tanis, who was on the board when the program was approved.
“This is a decision the taxpayers should make,” added Commissioner Harold Voorhees, also on the committee.
Finance Committee Chairman and Commissioner Dean Agee cast the swing vote that made the recommendation to transfer the tax dollars. He was also on the commission when the ordinance was created, and his vote may lead to the break up of a seven-year convention.
“We buy land all the time for parks and we’ve done a tremendous job at that,” said Agee. “I think it’s a modest amount of money.”
While suggesting that general fund dollars go to the preservation board, committee members decided not to give $5,000 to the Alliance for Health and $53,000 additional dollars to the circuit court. The committee also beat back a motion by Voorhees to schedule a millage vote in November for preservation and parks funding.
The committee did recommend raising the budget for John Ball Zoo by $19,100. Should commissioners agree, the zoo will close for four months beginning next November, rather than the five months originally planned.
The committee also restored $35,000 to the administrative budget. Those funds mean the county’s membership in the Grand Valley Metro Council will remain as is until September, if commissioners take the same action.
The committee also agreed not to cut funding to Public Affair Associates, the county’s lobbying firm in Lansing, and Wondergem Consulting, its Grand Rapids public relations consultant. The county pays PAA and Wondergem $41,000 and $25,000 a year, respectively. Its membership in the Metro Council comes to $71,000 a year.
“If we’re looking at (cutting) Metro Council for 50 percent, we should do something with the others, as well,” said Voorhees.
If commissioners adopt the general fund budget as it now stands, the county will lay off the equivalent of 79 full-time employees at the end of this month. The new budget goes into effect Jan. 1.
“It remains a hard budget. It’s difficult to lay off so many employees,” said Commissioner Carol Hennessy, also on the Finance Committee. “I think there still are some issues to settle and talk about.”
The county’s magnificent seven
Kent County Commissioners will adopt seven fiscal-year budgets Thursday and appropriate $345.6 million in spending for the coming fiscal year that begins Jan. 1.
Special Revenue Funds
Capital Projects Funds
Internal Service Funds
Debt Service Funds
Component Unit Funds
Note: Deficits will be covered by particular fund’s reserve.
Source: Kent County Fiscal Services, December 2009