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County approves budget and wages for next year

VINTON – “It’s not popular, it’s not easy. We don’t like to do this.”

Benton County Supervisor Chairman Jason Sanders set the tone for the meeting last Tuesday morning as the Benton County Board of Supervisors approved the budget for next fiscal year, with a $500 increase for non-union workers earning less than $35,000, a freeze on salaries earning more than $35,000, and no pay increase for elected officials.

“I’m probably not going to be a very popular guy here today,” said Supervisor Ron Buch, who first motioned to have no pay increases for non-union employees, saying he wanted to stay consistent with what was approved by the Benton County Conference Board. The supervisors are one-third of the board that sets the pay for the county assessor. Also on the board are school and city representatives.

Sanders said all of the supervisors voted for the conference board recommendation. “With the place the budget is right now … It was the time we needed to do this. I hope we don’t have to do it again.”

Sanders pointed to the projected balance at the end of next fiscal year. The county likes to have that at 20 percent, since the year starts July 1, and the county needs to spend money before the tax revenues come in the fall. This has made the county go above the cap for general basic, which is $3.50 per $1,000. The county proposed adding 25 cents to the levy because of issues arising from the flood of 2008.

Benton County Attorney David Thompson said he sat in on most of the budget meetings. “I’ve seen all kinds of things that can be cut,” he told the board. “You folks, by in large, have decided not to cut those things.” He stressed these were all discretionary spending items.

He added he supports unions. However, the board has offered real money to the two unions it is negotiating with that is above 1 percent. The board is sending the message, he said, that non-employees should unionize, since union employees get a pay increase.

He said of the budget woes, “I don’t believe the flood is solely responsible for where we’re at right now.”

Thompson said the county needs a uniform pay scale. Without this, the board will have the same meeting every year with hard feelings afterwards.

Thompson said, “The budget is filled with projects and things that could be cut if we’re really this hard up. We have a lot of discretionary spending … We have cut very little of it. Until you folks start to curb some of this spending, this budget is going to be in a world of hurt … Spending has not been kept in control. The inability to say ‘no’ to the cash cow departments in this county that want and seem to get just about everything – doing things like the radio project years ago when we really didn’t need to, and we’ve go do it again to go digital by 2013 – projects like that and not thinking before we commit the county buck to it are what causing problems for this budget, not the people in this room who are doing their jobs.”

He credited Sanders for trying to cut some of these programs, which he felt were hard to justify their existence.

Vermedahl observed Thompson’s comments seemed to be directed towards economic development. Thompson answered that was not a fair characterization, adding there were all kinds of things that could be cut, and not just economic development. He said he could meet with the press later and give them a list.

The board first voted on giving no increase. Buch and David Vermedahl voted against it. Sanders voted for it. A motion to give a 25-cent per hour raise was withdrawn.

They then decided to give the $500 pay increase to those making less than $35,000, and freezing those with a salary above $35,000. Part-time employees would get a 25-cent increase. Buch and Vermedahl voted for this. Sanders was opposed.

The compensation board last month recommended 1 percent pay increases to the elected county officials, except for county auditor Jill Marlow, for whom they recommended an increase of 2.5 percent, because of the extra hours she has put in for her work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Marlow explained she put in extra time after hours for the flood work, on top of other projects she is working on above her normal job. FEMA is reimbursing the county for her FEMA-related work, but Marlow does not get any of it.

Thompson said Marlow deserved this because of the extra work she put in. He added he’d donate his increase to charity.

Vermedahl added Marlow deserved a lot of credit for her work.

Vinton Mayor John Watson also appreciated her work. While it might be fair for Marlow to not get an added raise, Watson observed, “We all choose to be where we are at.” The flood was a disaster. “Maybe that’s why not everybody wants to be the elected official that we are today.”

The board unanimously approved a 0 percent increase, and then approved the budget unanimously. The general basic levy will be reduced by $30,000, which amounts to about two cents in the general basic, taking out what was budgeted for pay increases.

The budget had $29.9 million in spending.

UPDATED March 16, 2010 11:49 AM

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