When you attend budget hearings, especially like those held over the last month in which Missoula County commissioners wrestled with a budgetary shortfall of nearly $3.1 million, you expect the hackneyed references to chopping blocks, falling axes and bloodletting. Rarely, however, does the testimony put into perspective just what’s at risk as clearly as it did two weeks ago, when Ron “Rocky” Rockos limped to the podium with cane in hand and offered his modest words for the commissioners to ponder.
“I was told about two months ago that I would lose half my foot. It’s still there,” says Rockos, a patient of Partnership Health Center, which serves Missoula County’s low-income, indigent and uninsured patients. “Dr. Lovejoy and her staff [at Partnership Health Center] saved my foot. What more can you say?”
This week, Missoula County commissioners approved a $54.4 million budget for fiscal year 2001 in a package that mitigates many—though not all—of the proposed cuts, including a 5.7 percent reduction in funding for services for the poor. Instead, the 2001 budget, approved a week earlier than was required by law, restored that funding and even included a modest 1.36 percent increase.
“The testimony, not only by interested people who were affected directly by the budget decisions, but individual citizens, had a great effect on how this budget was finally processed,” says Commissioner Michael Kennedy. Kennedy notes that the budget is the clearest indicator of the county’s priorities, policies and values, and this year’s budgetary process “delivered a budget that not only provides the services that people have come to expect, but also represents the policies of the county.”
Facing a $3.1 million deficit, all county departments and services were asked to reduce their total spending by about 10 percent. As the process evolved, however, the spending reductions were scaled back to about $1.3 million, or a 7.6 percent reduction for each department. The budget approved this week included a better-than-expected cash balance of $606,000, as well as $337,008 in increased revenue from new construction that had not been anticipated.
“In recognition that there has been some suffering through this, [there is] small satisfaction to know it could have been worse,” says Commissioner Barbara Evans.
The budget is not without its share of pain, however. Layoffs or attrition of personnel will occur throughout county departments, from the Office of Emergency Management to the County Attorney’s Office. Motor Vehicles will be forced to scale back its services and beginning Aug. 14 open an hour later at 9 a.m. The Office of Planning and Grants will also be expected to place more emphasis on regulatory processes and less on planning, and according to budget documents, the sheriff’s department’s “response time and officer back-up will be compromised.”