The following letter from Orange County manager Laura Blackmon was sent to county employees at 9:40 a.m. today.
By now you have probably heard I gave notice to the BOCC on Friday that my husband and I have decided to leave the area and move to Tennessee. My last day on the job will be June 30, 2009. I know the timing of this announcement is not good, but my employment agreement with the county requires I give 90 day notice and I was running out of time. By the end of June I will have been here over 2 ? years. This is not as long as I had originally thought I would stay, but life isn’t always as we plan it.
I know you understand how difficult a year this will be for the budget. The BOCC has committed itself to a revenue neutral tax rate which means the tax rate will generate the same amount of revenue from property taxes as last year. A lot of residents are upset about the revaluation of their property, but the neutral tax rate should keep their taxes in check unless their property has increased in value above the average of all properties in the county.
Revaluation and neutral tax rate, however, are not the problem in and of themselves. The real problem for the coming year is most of our other revenue sources are declining, we have new facilities opening which means an increase in utilities and general operating costs, we have an increase in demands for services, especially in the human resources departments and the state is beginning to withhold revenue from us because of its budget shortfalls.
Things are not looking good for the county or the two school systems, which have already been told they too will see a decrease in funds next year. The Budget Office has estimated the shortfall to be about $8 million, which will be difficult to absorb without cutting services or staff. The BOCC has emphasized its desire NOT to reduce staff but to seek other ways of cutting expenditures. Those of you who are fully funded from outside sources such as grants, state and/or federal monies are more vulnerable than other employees because it will be hard to absorb the cost of your salary and benefits should those funding sources disappear. Nevertheless the Commissioners and Management are adamant about keeping everyone employed, so we will do our best to make sure no one loses their job.
Having said all that, it is crucial everyone understand and support the difficult decisions being made over the next few months. You have probably already heard there will be no cost of living or merit increases for employees next year. We are also expecting about an 8% increase in the cost of medical benefits next calendar year. These costs can be contained if we work hard to stay healthy and reduce our claims for insurance. Unfortunately that is easier said than done.
The department directors have submitted their budgets with a 10% reduction in operating line items, overtime and temporary employee expenditure requests. I am hoping this 10% cut will be enough given the shortfall we are expecting in revenues. However, some departments are actually seeing an increase in the cost of doing business (Public Works, IT, Parks and Recreation for example) or an increase in service demands (such as Health, DSS, and Emergency Services). In reality, once the final budget is approved some departments will see more cut from their budgets than other departments. I don’t see how this can be avoided. Tough decisions will have to be made about whether or not we open new parks or county buildings that are now almost complete, whether we cut operating hours for libraries, the animal shelter, senior centers and other county facilities, or whether we limit the amount of services we provide for those residents in our community most in need of assistance.
I think the bottom line will be for us to reduce, eliminate, or delay those services that are important but not as critical as our core services, which are the services the county provides because it is legally required by statute or because government is the best agency to do so. Such decisions will not be easy and we must do all we can to suggest, inform, recommend and ultimately support the Board of Commissioners who will be tasked with that responsibility.
In closing let me just say thank you for all you do for the residents of Orange County. As public servants we have a unique responsibility to the community and I know you will continue to do the very best job you can despite the difficulties ahead.