County discusses plan to make up $231,000 in ambulance losses
“We do not have any glowing optimism to report, but also no throbbing pessimism,” Ketelsen said.
As it did last year, the board formed a committee, including two board members, to consider budget requests. It met for several months, issuing regular reports on budget requests and committee action to keep the rest of the board informed of its decisions.
The committee denied a request for $289,000 over three years to subsidize ambulance service. The Sierra Emergency Medical Service Authority gave the committee a claim saying it lost $231,000 during the 2007-2008 fiscal year and asking the county to cover those losses. The committee denied both claims on Aug. 21.
“They have a contract that says we don’t subsidize them,” Ketelsen said of the ambulance service. “But that doesn’t mean we still don’t have to solve the problem.”
County staff must verify the SEMSA loss claim, Ketelsen said.
“The ambulance service and fire districts are in dire need,” said Board Chairman and District 4 Supervisor Brain Dahle, who also served on the budget committee.
He said the county has a Cadillac ambulance system it can’t afford. The board must also make difficult decisions regarding public works and community development.
“We’re at a point where I don’t see us in the future being able to build anything,” Dahle said.
The board voted 4-1 to approve the spending plan. District 2 Supervisor Jim Chapman cast the lone no vote.
He said the budget, “Embraces the status quo that we accept business as usual as being the norm for the day” and during times of unprecedented change the board must reflect the expectations of the public.
Chapman said the budget wasn't good enough.
Dahle said the county "runs a business that does not allow us to raise our prices" but its employees need salary increases.
District 1 Supervisor Bob Pyle said only economic development will allow the county to raise more taxes.
“We had the greatest economic boom in land values going up in the history of this country in the last 10 years and it ... changed our revenues by only $150,000," Dahle said. "We gave $600,000 just to the sheriff's department in raises last year. There's something wrong with that picture folks."
He said the budget committee had to tell department employees they could not have the new employees they need. Dahle said the only way to fix the problem is by reorganizing several departments and making the county work force leaner and meaner and that means cutting positions.
Dahle directed the staff to set information sessions to discuss the county community development department’s budget at its Tuesday, Sept. 18 meeting. He said the board will discuss the county public works department at its Sept. 25 meeting. It will hold a community discussion on ambulance and fire funding at its Tuesday, Oct. 9 meeting.
After the Sept. 11 board meeting, County Counsel Craig Settlemire suggested asking for proposals and ideas to be submitted for discussion at the fire and ambulance meeting.
The next two or three years will be a tough until the county figures out a way to increase income or cut costs, Dahle said.
For 911 dispatching, the county must have 24-hour coverage.
“The call volume is so high, you can’t cover all the calls and you’re bouncing back and forth,” Dahle told the board. “And those are going to be issues in the future. As our population grows and our need for those kinds of services, we’re going to have to address that at some point. Right now, we’re riding right on thin ice.”
The committee could not find money for all the requests from department heads.
Staff who wanted to expand programs were disappointed.
“We can’t afford to do that,” Ketelsen said.
Assistant CAO Julie Morgan said the 2007-2008 budget is extremely lean. Areas of concern include possible inadequate funding for institutional care. Morgan said the administrative staff may have to come back to the board for more direction on funding some areas of the budget.
“It’s going to be more difficult next year, too, and the demand for services is going to be higher,” Dahle said.
District 5 Supervisor Jack Hanson, the other budget committee member, said the board will spend more than it takes in this fiscal year. The county plans to use $1.6 million of the money carried over from 2006-2007 to keep the new budget balanced.
For the 2006-2007 budget, the board planned to use $1.8 million of the carry-over balance from the previous year. Instead, Morgan said, the county ended the fiscal year with $302,000 more carry over funds than anticipated.
“However, it is there to cushion those times where it becomes difficult to present a balanced budget and keep the services out there going to the constituents,” Hanson said.
At one point the ending balance in September 2008 was projected as low as $38,000, Hanson said. It is now projected at $1.28 million. He said next year the county will be in dire straits if it can’t find some extra revenue. The county had to put $350,000 into unfunded liabilities for retired county employees’ health insurance, he said.
“I think that was a significant contribution,” Hanson said. “(It was) not enough, but certainly we’re not as far out of balance as many governmental entities around the state of California and across the nation.”
District 3 Supervisor Lloyd Keefer said good budget management by county department heads prevented the county from spending its reserves
“The department heads have been very frugal in their expenditures and probably helped us a great deal over the last four or five years,” Keefer said.
“Absolutely,” Dahle agreed. “That’s what keeps us alive.”
Department heads operating under budget keep the county going, he said.
“That’s why we’re able to continue to do this,” Dahle said.
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