Study: Davis, Weber coping with the 'new norm' of economy

Oct 25 2011 - 6:28am

LAYTON -- With years of revenue losses in the U.S. economy, small and large counties across the country appear to be settling into a "new normal" of revenue, staffing and service delivery, according to a recent national survey.

"Coping with the New Normal: An Economic Status Survey of Counties" is the seventh survey in a series of biannual surveys conducted by the National Association of Counties to capture information about counties struggling with the current fiscal situation.

This month, NACo surveyed all counties having professional managers, clerks or administrators. Of these 2,000 counties, 233 responded, representing 38 states.

"The new survey shows counties are continuing to make difficult budget decisions and are still scaling back or deferring certain activities to help them through their current fiscal year," said Jim Phillips, NACo media relations manager based in Washington, D.C.

Although most financial analysts believe the recession ended more than a year ago, local economies affecting county governments continue to struggle toward recovery, Phillips said.

But with commercial growth like Station Park in Farmington and job growth with the recent expansion of ATK in Clearfield, Davis County has been able to avoid any reduction in services or raising taxes to make revenues meet services, said Davis County Clerk/Auditor Steve Rawlings.

The aspects of county government hardest hit by budget and staffing adjustments across the nation were planning, zoning, engineering, surveying and code enforcement (46 percent); roads, highways and transportation (45 percent); and administration, budget and human resources (42 percent).

Sheriff, police, fire and rescue experienced a 35 percent adjustment, while health and libraries experienced a 26 percent adjustment. Jails and corrections experienced a 25 percent adjustment.

"The economic downturn has certainly contributed with the slowdown in the economy," Rawlings said of the county's operating budget, which has been relatively flat since 2007.

"A review of our budgets for past years indicates that we have not taken a tax increase since 2007. County employee numbers have been maintained below approved levels, and employees have not received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2009," Rawlings said.

"We have been able to continue giving performance pay increases to those employees with high performance ratings."

But like others, the county is struggling with ever-increasing health care costs and has made changes to keep these costs in line, at the same time protecting employees and their families.

Before the downturn, Davis County created savings through consolidation and fiscal management, Rawlings said, and departments have been frugal in using their budget appropriations.

Even during the downturn, using funds wisely has allowed the county to accumulate savings in a capital projects fund and build needed facilities without a tax increase -- the health building and senior service building in Clearfield being examples, Rawlings said.

Weber County is coping with the current economy, said Weber County Commissioner Jan Zogmaister.

"We're managing quite well."

The commission is taking an approach of a "no-growth budget" and asking department heads to prepare 1 percent to 3 percent budget cuts they can implement if needed in balancing the budget, Zogmaister said.

Weber County also has been putting funds aside should a need arise, she said.

"We are in a situation (where), if we need to, we will be able to pull from savings put away for a rainy day," Zogmaister said.

"We have been cutting for a couple of years now. That is the climate. We're thinking this is pretty much the way it is, and we are going to have to manage within it."

Zogmaister said she understands why NACo officials refer to it as the new norm, because the same economic challenges from 2009 remain in place today.

"Despite the local budget challenges, counties are ideally situated to lead the way back toward economic growth and opportunity in communities across the country," said NACo Executive Director Larry E. Naake.

NACo, founded in 1935, provides services to the nation's 3,068 counties.

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