By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners made the final cuts to the county budget last week by eliminating a half-time position in the Environmental Health Department and a full time position in the Treasurer’s Office. The cuts were calculated to make up the $48,000 shortfall created when the District Court prevented the cuts that commissioners planned in the Justice Courts.
At the request of Commissioner Greg Chilcott, the board arranged a meeting with elected officials and department heads to discuss the final cuts. Chilcott, however, was out of town on the day of the meeting, November 1, and a few of the commissioners expressed dismay at having to conduct a meeting which they did not see any need in having in the first place.
“I’m apologizing,” said Commissioner Suzy Foss. “This should not be happening. We should not be doing this. I don’t know why you are here. I don’t feel like this is your job. It’s ours.”
Nonetheless, the commissioners solicited suggestions and comment from the officials and department heads.
Human Resources Director Robert Jenni offered to forego some scheduled training that could save the county $650. County Attorney Bill Fulbright suggested that there may be vacancy savings of close to $12,000 in his office between the departure of Deputy County Attorney Karen Mahar and the filling of her position, but CFO Klarysse Murphy said that the vacancy savings had already been figured into the budget. He also suggested possibly collecting up to $5,000 that is owed the county out of a judgment settlement. But the commissioners questioned whether the money could really be collected.
Public Health Nurse Judy Griffin brought up the issue of a morale problem that was created through the budget process. She called the situation demoralizing.
“It hits me close to the heart,” she said. “From the bottom of my heart I respectfully ask you to consider we are people. We have never been through times like this. I ask you to really, really consider your employees.”
Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said, “The fact is every department head has responsibility for morale in their department. We share in that, but part of your job is to manage the direction of employees.”
Sheriff Chris Hoffman said, “Why now? Why ask us to help with finding $48,000 in savings, but not when you were looking for $400,000?” Hoffman said the department heads and elected officials were not consulted about the layoffs. He said they were cut out of the budget process in a way that had never happened in the last eight budgets that he had participated in.
Kanenwisher said that the commission could not talk about it, as a commission, beforehand. He said the problem was not with the process but with the result.
“I beg to differ,” said Hoffman. “We were discarded in this process.”
Weed District Manager Kellieann Morris suggested that the commissioners could have come to department heads with an amount to be cut, some percentage of the department budget, and let the department heads find the best way to address it. She said department heads were in the best position to find ways to cut in their own department.
Commission Chair J.R. Iman said that the commission had already cut all the stuff from the department budgets in past budget cycles. He said, “stuff” had been cut until there was no more stuff to cut.
“We are down to meat and bone,” he said. “There is no more fluff.”
The meeting was continued until Thursday, November 3, at which time the commissioners without much further discussion decided to eliminate the positions in the Treasurer and Environmental Health departments as they had first proposed.