The Secure Rural Schools program, which Congress last month reinstated for two years in the federal budget, will bring about $400,000 to Curry County’s general fund, providing just enough money to build a budget similar to that of this fiscal year.
Interim County Administrator John Hitt said in a budget overview discussion earlier this month that the 2018-19 general fund budget would be $300,000 to $400,000 short, but that was before Congress voted to reinstate the SRS program in its spending bill.
The general fund pays for the bulk of county services. In the heyday of timber-cutting, it received millions of dollars in tax receipt revenue. These days, those receipts have been slashed and Curry County commissioners have been forced to outsource entire departments — public health, the animal shelter and hospice among them — combine departments and make dramatic cuts.
Without this year’s SRS allocation, the county would likely have to cut department budgets in half — if not eliminate them completely, Hitt said.
Curry County will receive about 95 percent of what it received from SRS funding two years ago; it will receive less than that for fiscal year 2019-20.
In the budget overview presentation Hitt recently gave to county commissioners, however, he suggested they increase the amount of money budgeted to certain departments — notably the Sheriff’s Department — that have gone without adequate funding for years. That budget would result in a $1 million shortfall, not including the SRS funds.
The shortfall, Hitt said, could be backfilled with money from the road reserve fund, contingency funds or money appropriated in this year’s budget but that was not spent.
“I think we should budget borrowing road funds — and when I say ‘borrow,’ I mean borrow. It’s the only way we can do that is to develop revenue alternatives. It’s a tough nut to crack, that’s for sure.”
He plans to move forward with that budget proposal, although now he will work alongside Clark Schroeder, who was offered the permanent job of county administrator last Saturday.
Budget discussions begin in May.
One other option remains in the fiscal toolbox — House Bill 3453, first approved in 2012 and this week extended to 2024.
It allows the governor’s office to help counties deemed to be in “fiscal distress” by providing services through intergovernmental agreements and billing half of the cost to citizens through a tax on cell phones or an income tax surcharge. The other half of the cost would be borne by the state.
The governor would have to determine that fiscal conditions “exist or are imminent” that compromise the ability of the county to provide “minimally adequate levels of public safety services.
The governor shall first consult with the Senate President, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House, the speaker of the House of Representatives, each Senator and Representative of the affected district and the sheriff, the bill reads.
No Curry County official has expressed a desire to pursue a solution by using the legislation.