County board works on budget
Revenues a question for 2021
December 10, 2020
Time is running out for Wahkiakum County officials to complete their budget preparation process for 2021, and questions and concerns about revenue remain to be answered.
The covid-19 pandemic has impacted the economy in a variety of ways, and the county's budgets will feel those impacts.
"Revenues are down, and expenses are always increasing," Auditor Nicci Bergseng said at a public hearing Monday to gather public comment on the budgets.
"It's impacting us all the way around," said commission Chair Dan Cothren.
According to the preliminary budgets, all proposed expenses total around $27 million; the county will raise about $2 million in property taxes; the other revenue comes from state and federal sources. The county also relies on revenues from harvest of timber on privately owned and county trust timber lands.
Restrictions on commercial activity last spring slowed the harvest and milling of timber from private timberland, Cothren said, and that resulted in a big drop in timber excise taxes.
"That really set us back," Cothren said. The market has recovered, he added, so timber excise tax should increase next year.
Cothren also said he has been working with staff from the state Department of Natural Resources to boost revenue from the DNR managed county trust lands. The one timber sale set for harvest in 2021 was expected to bring in just over $800,000, below the $1.3 million average for the past few years. However, Cothren and DNR personnel feel the strong market will boost the sale price; the sale will be auctioned Dec. 18.
DNR staff are also working to post some smaller sales next year to boost timber revenue, Cothren said.
Commissioners have run into a couple hurdles in their efforts to lobby state officials for revenue support.
First, restrictions on in-person meetings have made it difficult to meet with legislators and budget writers.
Second, District 19 voters replaced a state senator and representative who were chairs of powerful committees with a new senator and representative from the minority party. Cothren said there needs to be some education on issues.
One issue is the pursuit of Wahkiakum, Pacific and Skamania counties for compensation for trust timberland that is kept out of harvest because of habitat management for endangered species.
The counties have been able to obtain $1 million annual allocations for several years, but the allocations may be in danger in the coming legislative session. The commissioners earlier this year wrote to Governor Jay Inslee to request that the appropriation be in his proposed budget, but they were unhappy with the response that pointed out the pandemic's impact on state revenue.
"They used covid as their excuse, heavily," said Commissioner Mike Backman.
When the board met Tuesday, commissioners voted to send another letter emphasizing the county's need for the revenue to provide services.
Commissioners say they aren't looking at a reduction in force if revenue problems arise.
"I don't want to think about that," Cothren commented. "We're always thinking outside the box and we'll make it work.
Employees will receive longevity increases but, at this point, no cost of living adjustments
are in the budget.
Cothren will meet with representatives of the two unions representing county employees this week.
Commissioners will also, as they've done several times in the past, shift $250,000 from the County Road Levy to the Current Expense Fund, which funds most courthouse offices.
When they met Tuesday, commissioners approved agreements with the Town of Cathlamet for a $50,000 appropriation to support the municipal swimming pool, and they approved a contract with the Wahkiakum Chamber of Commerce for $20,000.
They also appointed Todd Souvenir and Ed Stornetta to the Wahkiakum County Noxious Weed Control Board of Supervisors.
Weed Supervisor Andy Lea reported that the permitting process for application of herbicide on milfoil choking county sloughs has been slow; the work will likely occur next spring or summer.