Group stirs up budget debate

County officials dodged a number of questions on the county budget and tax rates from a local political activist Monday.

Steven Robinson, a Golden Valley resident who has helped a number of candidates for county office with their campaigns, used a handful of supporters and at least two candidates for county offices to get around the three-minute time limit the Board of Supervisors puts on speakers.

The two candidates for office were Liz Albright and Joy Brotherton, who are both running for the District 4 supervisor's seat.

Robinson's supporters peppered the Board, County Manager Ron Walker and County Finance Director John Timko with questions.

County officials weren't very forthcoming with answers or explanations and said the inquisitors were creating problems out of thin air.

"I think there is a lot of speculation going on about this," Timko said.

"I think people are asking a lot of questions about issues that don't exist," Walker said.

The questions included:

• Why the county was telling the public that tax rates were going down when, according to Robinson, the amount of tax revenue the county collected in the last six years had increased.

• Who gave Timko and Walker the authority to move money between county funds without prior approval from the Board.

• Why the county hadn't held any public workshops on the budget in the last four years.

• Why Walker and his assistant, Yvonne Orr, receive a large part of their salary from the county's TV district when they spend less than 5 percent of their time on issues related to the district.

• Why the Board hasn't approved a budget for county's secondary property taxing districts in the last four years. The county's secondary property taxing districts include the Library District, TV District and Flood Control District. The supervisors also sit as the governing boards of each of the secondary taxing districts and are responsible for setting the districts' tax rates and budgets.

• Why the county hasn't reduced the tax rates of the secondary districts if they aren't using the funds.

• Why so much money was being reserved in various county funds, such as the debt service fund, vehicle replacement fund and computer replacement fund.

• Why the county's contingency fund was reduced from $11 million to $1 million. Robinson believes the funds were transferred to the county debt service fund, which pays for the construction of new county buildings, such as the jail.

• Why the county's debt service fund showed a negative balance of more than $2 million in the 2013 county budget when the 2012 budget shows it with a $7.7 million balance.

• Why, according to Robinson, the county moved $25 million in to the debt service fund for 2013 when the payments on the new jail and county administration building are only $6.7 million.

Timko dismissed the claim that the county's tax revenue had increased over the last six years. In fact, it has dropped by more than $14 million in the last six years, he said.

He also denied moving funds between county departments without Board approval.

Timko explained each department can move funds from one item in its budget to another item in order to cover expenses.

Board approval is only required when funds must be transferred from the county's general fund budget, which encompasses all of the county's departments, to a specific department, he said. That money usually comes from the contingency fund in the county's general budget. All of those transfers have been approved by the Board in open meetings, Timko said.

County officials did not respond to the questions about the county's secondary taxing districts, their budgets or why the county hadn't changed the tax rates in years.

Walker and the Board also did not respond to the question about why part of Walker's and his assistant's salary is coming from the county's TV tax district.

Board Chairman Buster Johnson did have Timko explain the reserve funds for the county's computers and vehicles.

The funds need to have that much money in them in order to cover the replacement of the county's computers every three years and the county's vehicles every six years, Timko said. When he first arrived at the county, the county's vehicles frequently broke down and were a liability to the county. The computers couldn't open most email attachments.

In 2004, the county created a fund that would replace a number of the county's vehicles every six years and part of its computers every three years, Timko said.

The money in the funds comes from the various departments that use the vehicles and the computers.

These programs have actually saved the county money on maintenance and upgrades, he said.

County officials also did not directly answer questions about transfers from the county's general fund to its debt service fund.

In the past, county officials have explained that the money in the debt service fund comes from a quarter cent sales tax that is earmarked for capitol improvement projects, such as the new jail.

Any revenue from the tax that is left over after paying the debts is reserved for new building projects.

The purpose of the budget was to continue to allow the county to provide the best level of service it can to the public with the revenue it has, Walker said.

"In the light of cuts in revenue, this budget does it," he said. "There were many, many options with this year's budget. This was the most conservative, efficient option."