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Deadline passes for county belt-tightening

You could call Friday a deadline or a day of reckoning for Clark County’s department heads.

Thirty-seven departments and the University Medical Center had to submit proposals to the county manager’s office for trimming 5 percent of their costs to help fill budget gaps.

The departmental cost-cutting will save an estimated $60 million over two years, enough to partly offset both legislative actions that cost the county $180.5 million for the biennium and tax revenues continuing to fall.

County Manager Virginia Valentine and her staff will study the proposals with the goal of presenting a cost-reduction plan to commissioners by early August. Officials on Friday said they needed some time to examine the heap of proposals before they could comment on whether layoffs would come.

"We don’t have a lot of flexibility left, but I’m not willing to say layoffs are inevitable until we have a chance to look at the plans," said Don Burnette, chief administrative officer.

Burnette said the sooner county leaders can tackle the cost-cutting the better. The longer they wait, the more money they’ll spend on operating costs, digging themselves into a deeper hole that would require more severe measures, he said.

Commissioner Larry Brown said the question is no longer whether the county can avoid slashing jobs and programs, but rather which jobs and programs should go.

"What areas are we going to target for cuts?" Brown said. "If the rest of the county and state and nation is facing double-digit unemployment and layoffs, what makes the county immune to this recession?"

Departments have already done the easier cost-cutting, such as leaving jobs vacant and not replacing equipment, Brown said. Now come the tougher decisions.

Brown said he received an e-mail suggesting the county reduce wages across the board by 10 percent to save jobs. That kind of action would require dialogue with employee unions, but it can’t be automatically dismissed, he said.

County spokesman Erik Pappa said the hefty losses at the hands of lawmakers compound the county’s waning tax revenue.

"The governor and the Legislature killed us with that $180 million," Pappa said. "The services are going to suffer. There’s only so much you can do."

The $60 million in savings will replace the $11 million the county pulled from a reserve fund as a stopgap after the legislative grab, Burnette said.

A couple months ago, the county had to draw about $49 million from this reserve to help make up for a $113 million shortfall resulting from diminished tax revenue.

The reserve is supposed to be at least 10 percent of the $1.3 billion general fund, and is now depleted to 8 percent. This could hurt the county’s bond rating and make loans more expensive, officials say.

Departmental savings also should offset some of the projected losses in tax revenue next year, Burnette said. Residential land values plunged in the past year and now commercial property values are sinking, he said.

"All the indications are that it’s going to get worse," Burnette said.

Commissioner Rory Reid said the county has faced budget challenges all year, and now must grapple with tougher problems created by the Legislature.

"We have more belt-tightening," Reid said. "They (residents) are going to see the most efficient Clark County government they’ve ever seen."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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