Gallatin County Courthouse File

The Gallatin County Courthouse is shown in this Aug. 14, 2018, file photo.

Gallatin County anticipates spending $156.9 million next year to support more than 500 employees, 20 departments and 10 outside organizations.

With a budget that is tighter than normal, the commissioners are grappling with addressing county needs while limiting tax increases.

Based on the commissioners’ budget decisions to date, taxes would increase $24.34 for the owner of a $300,000 home next year. It's likely the budget — and the taxes required to support it — will change before it's finalized later this summer.

“I think generally we do a good job in the county, but when we are dealing with 3% population growth each year, that’s 10 more people each day that we need to provide services for,” said Commissioner Don Seifert. “For me, it becomes about where we need to put those dollars to continue to provide the services that we need to provide.”

Recent raises for county employees and increased investment in the Gallatin Rest Home are contributing to next year’s budget challenges.

The commissioners increased salaries for this fiscal year by 6% for most employees and 5% for elected officials. To pay for the increase, they are using $500,000 from next year’s budget.

Next year, they are providing another raise — about 4.5% for most employees and 3.5% for elected officials — and have set aside the money for a 3% salary increase for members of the emergency dispatchers union, which is in contract negotiations with the county. Next year’s raises — including the estimated union increase — will cost about $928,000.

“Everybody has a problem right now getting employees, so we have to at least be competitive in the market to keep who we have and recruit new employees,” said Commissioner Joe Skinner.

The commissioners have budgeted a one-time increase of about $512,000 for the Rest Home while they search for a sustainable way to maintain the facility, which has struggled financially over the last several years in part because Medicaid doesn’t reimburse for the full cost of care.

With the investment in salary increases and the Rest Home, the commissioners have struggled to fulfill other budget requests.

Those requests include money for the equivalent of 14 new full-time staff members to help with the increased workload that comes with the county’s growth.

“I don’t think it surprises anyone that demand for our services is increasing just like everything else around here,” Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said.

Nearly seven of the new positions requested are for the sheriff’s office.

“This number of new positions is a little more than we typically ask for, but we are growing and we’re busier than ever,” said Sheriff Brian Gootkin. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

The commissioners have approved some of the sheriff’s office positions, including a shared city-county forensic evidence technician and a community-based crisis therapist.

“The commissioners have always been supportive of our efforts, but if they didn’t fund any more positions for us, it’d put us in a tight spot, which they know,” Gootkin said.

Other major requests for staffing increases came from the Gallatin City-County Health Department. Health officer Matt Kelley asked for two behavioral health positions and to move a half-time compliance officer to full-time.

The commissioners have approved all of Kelley’s requests except one of the behavioral health positions. Kelley plans to ask commissioners to reconsider his request. In the meantime, he has begun looking at grants to support the position.

“We’re asking for this funding because we are struggling to find other funding sources for these behavioral health positions, which address the number one issues in our community: mental health and substance abuse,” he said.

At the same time he is asking for new positions, Kelley cut costs in other areas by about $45,000 to help commissioners balance the budget.

“We’ve worked hard to use the funding we have to the best of our ability without overburdening taxpayers,” he said.

While infrastructure is a major county need, budget constraints mean that most requests won’t move forward.

The Gallatin County Fairgrounds asked for $12.4 million for a list of projects identified as critical through the department’s strategic planning process.

“We have no expectation that the commissioners will fund all these projects, but we are moving up on their priority list and are optimistic some of what we need will be funded each year,” said general manager Dennis Voeller.

Next year, Voeller hopes to complete several smaller projects, including improvements to paths, for a total of about $165,000. In the future, he is considering a $5 million multi-event space to attract larger events.

“Over 70% of our revenue comes from the events we put on, so we appreciate whatever support the county can give us,” Voeller said. “We know they have a lot of different priorities, but they continue to fund projects that help us address our needs.”

The Innovation and Technology Department requested an additional $721,000 for several projects, including replacing aging equipment, upgrading the countywide main computing system, finishing the transition to a new email system and expanding data storage capacity, said director Matt Bunko. He also may return to the commissioners to ask for money for a handful of smaller projects, like replacing old routers and switches.

“In a budget year like this one where funding is tight, we all have to tighten our belts and focus on what we absolutely need because I'm one of many departments making requests," Bunko said.

Because the county’s budget is tight, commissioners approved requests from only six of the 15 outside agencies that asked for an increase over what they received this year. Of the six agencies, commissioners granted the full requests of only three — $81,730 for Western Montana Mental Health Center, $10,000 for the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District and $200 for the Gallatin County Council on Aging.

“We worked hard to limit approving even internal county needs, so it didn’t seem appropriate at the time to donate to outside agencies when we’re still trying to figure out how to make our internal departments whole,” MacFarlane said. “Discussions about outside agencies have been the toughest part of the budget process because these agencies are addressing needs we know we have in this community, so I wish we could give them the money to tackle these problems.”

The largest supplemental request came from Alcohol and Drug Services, which offers local treatment programs and asked for $100,000 to compensate for the loss of grant dollars. Although commissioners have not included the request in the budget, they will continue to support the department through the alcohol tax dollars they receive from the state.

The second largest request, which the commissioners also rejected, was $92,000 for the Gallatin River Task Force, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Gallatin River, to study options for wastewater treatment in Gallatin Canyon. The commissioners suggested the task force look for grants to cover the cost of the study.

Commissioners supported the task force in 2017 and 2018 with a contribution to the planning work that led to the study being proposed.

Streamline, which hasn’t requested county money in a long time, also made a large request. The bus service asked for $84,000 to help cover the cost of a consultant to look at updating routes and to match Bozeman’s contribution for Sunday service and for the expansion of a morning route.

“We’ll go back to the county to make our request again,” said transportation director Sunshine Ross. “We’ve received less funding from the city and the county than we asked for, so we might have to cut back on services and won’t be able to expand as we had hoped.”

Streamline hopes to create an urban transportation district, which would provide a steady revenue source via a voter-approved property tax increase. County commissioners have expressed support for the idea and said they think a tax district is a better approach for Streamline than annual requests to the city and county.

Commissioners will hold public hearings on the preliminary budget and will continue to make decisions on requests before voting on the final budget Aug. 27.

“We have really good, thoughtful department heads,” MacFarlane said. “They pay attention to the constraints we’re under, they make adjustments and they come in and tell us what they really need and what they can do without. We will continue to listen to them as we find a way to balance all of the county’s needs.”

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

Perrin Stein is the county, state and federal government reporter for the Chronicle.

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