TRAVERSE CITY — It took a while, but Grand Traverse County commissioners finally agreed on a 2014 budget.
Board members passed the budget during a committee meeting Wednesday — three weeks before the commission was required by state law to finalize next year’s budget and after months of debate about how best to eliminate a projected deficit of roughly $1.5 million in 2014.
The approved budget included the use of nearly $1 million in fund balance to shore up the deficit along with a proposed reduction of $500,000 to employee benefit costs. It also came with a commitment by the commission to review every department in the county for cuts and savings starting in early 2014.
“There are still issues with this budget that we know we’re going to talk about going in to the next year,” Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said during the meeting.
Board members approved the budget in a 6-to-1 vote. Commissioner Charlie Renny cast the lone vote against the budget. He wanted board members to find something to cut on Wednesday.
“I could be in favor of something like this if we did something specific now as far as a cut,” Renny said. “I know we’re always promising we’re going to look at this stuff later... We cannot wait six months to do this.”
Board members instead reduced one of the few revenue-positive parts of the budget proposal by halving a 5 percent increase in township contributions to the costs of “community policing officers.”
The difference -- about $35,000 -- will likely be made up from the county’s fund balance, which would bring total fund balance usage in the 2014 budget up to about $1.6 million, including the nearly $1 million aimed at balancing the deficit.
Commissioner Larry Inman and other board members said the county won’t need to spend the full amount budgeted from the fund balance if officials make cuts early on during the department-by-department review scheduled to started in January.
But the commission’s recent budget battle indicates coming to a consensus on what to cut likely won’t be easy.
County Administrator Dave Benda’s recommendation to save more than $600,000 by eliminating several positions in the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department gained no traction with board members. Several members of the public also voiced objections to that proposal during recent meetings, and a proposal by some commissioners to cut costs in the Parks and Recreation Department by laying off administrators and closing the county’s indoor pool.
Several people spoke in favor of the pool during Wednesday’s meeting -- long after commissioners appeared to abandon any real consideration of closing the facility as part of the 2014 budget. One of the pool supporters, Mary Loucks, suggested a different place commissioners should look for cuts: their own meeting per diem payments and health care benefits.
”I think those practices should probably be done away with,” Loucks, of Traverse City, said. “I think you could probably save a little money in the budget on those terms.”
It’s an idea commission Chair Herb Lemcool previously said he’ll consider.
”We need to start cutting within our own personal budget,” Lemcool said in an interview last week.
Trips to conferences, reimbursements for mileage and meeting attendance, and the commission’s $100,000 contingency fund should all be reviewed, Lemcool said.
”That’s where we need to start,” he said.