In August, this community experienced the first act of a longer drama about this county budget when the Lane County Commissioners received news of a $2 million budget shortfall. This shortfall had the commissioners making decisions between the poor, sick and homeless versus the safety of our community. At the last minute, the shortfall was revised down to $800,000.
One department, Public Safety, was cut by $500,000. Public safety is the most essential service of county government. Will criminals be running loose in the streets?
There are more cuts coming. Act Two of this drama will continue to unfold if state projections fall short, federal funding and other surprises force our commissioners and the administrator to redefine essential county services.
Our county administrator made a simple recommendation: reduce the “lapse” in many of the departments, including a core service of county government public safety. Lapse is the difference between the number of budgeted employees and the actual number of active employees on the job in Lane County. Vacant positions are currently kept on the books for budget purposes.
Some vacant but budgeted positions go unfilled for months, maybe even years, because it may be difficult to find the qualified candidate, compensation packages are insufficient or other personnel issues. These funds and positions are not subtracted even when they do not actually contribute to the stated purposes when the Budget Committee approves the department’s budget.
When the gap between budgeted employees and actual active employees is accumulated, those surplus funds are absorbed into the department and can be used for whatever the department director wants. It has similar advantages to an invisible reserve account for individual departments. This practice creates bloated budgets that camouflage the actual cost for essential services for county citizens.
This is the time to change this common practice. Departments should not hold open unfilled vacancies which can become slush funds and used for other purposes. The money should be returned to the general fund not as a carry-over resource for that department, but reduced from the department’s budget as unneeded and reallocated by the administrator. It is disingenuous to taxpayers in these challenging times to use what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get budgeting. It hides the real cost of essential services from taxpayers and elected officials.
Lane County government needs to earn back taxpayers’ trust. In Act Three, commissioners, budget committee members and administration should keep boots-on-the-ground, butts-in-the-jail and rocks-on-the-road with transparent budgeting. The good news: Act One of this drama, we have started the process early of a simplified, truthful county budgeting process that is long overdue.