EVANSTON — The Uinta County Commissioners had special work sessions last Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 7-8, in anticipation of severe budget cuts this year.
Commissioner Wendell Fraughton told the Herald the county expects to see about a $2 million deficit in revenues next year, and commission chair Eric South said these meetings were just so the county can look at all options to try to meet budget restraints.
South also added that because the Wyoming Legislature is still in session, the county won’t know more about what the next year’s budget will look like until the legislative session ends on March 3. At this stage, the commissioners are just gathering information and trying to plan ahead; no decisions have been made as yet.
The special session was designed to allow the commissioners and department heads to meet individually and talk about needs and where cuts can be made.
IT director Ruth Swanteck said, though, there is only so much that can be expected of employees before they go somewhere else, and there are only so many hours in a day. Swanteck, for instance, works from 4 a.m.-2 p.m. and is on call at other times as well.
Some options that the commissioners have discussed is merging departments. For instance, IT could possibly merge with the Communications department.
Another related concern for IT is the Uinta County Library system, which has computers that are leased. At the end of the lease, which is coming up, the county will have to decide whether to let the library keep the computers (by just paying off the computers) or start over with a new lease, or going for less expensive machines and replacing as needed. Another option is to buy laser toner in bulk for the entire county.
Sheriff Doug Matthews also presented with Chief Deputy Rowdy Dean. They gave an overview of the statutory requirements for the sheriff’s office and for the jail. Employees all have to have training (which Matthews has been trying to get for free or for less cost). Matthews said the Sheriff’s Office is also operating on a training budget that is half the Evanston Police Department’s training budget, even though the police department also has half the employees the sheriff’s office has.
The main concern is that, with attrition, they are down seven people and are in need of at least two new employees — a replacement for someone who will leave at the end of the month and a new deputy in Bridger Valley. Dean said he would like to see another patrol officer and another for the jail. The jail, especially, is a concern, as only two people have been able to patrol at a time.
“These people have nothing but time,” Dean said of the prisoners. “... They watch the officers, they know who’s working, they know how many people are in there.”
With too few employees, there is always a risk. Dean commended Matthews for economical leadership, but since he took office, the department has gone from 53 employees to 46, and some of those positions have not been filled, partly because of monetary reasons. Four of those positions were cut since the beginning of the year, which has saved the county $226,000 for fiscal year 2017.
Another concern is that, while other law enforcement agencies have start and end times that they patrol (especially in Mountain View and Lyman), the sheriff’s office has to cover 2,081 square miles of urban and rural land 24/7 for a population of 20,822.
One example of this, Dean said, is that there was a fatal accident on I-80 Tuesday night, but Wyoming Highway Patrol took 40 minutes to make it over. That left the sole Bridger Valley deputy alone dealing with the accident for the entire time.
Furthermore, the sheriff’s office is increasingly having to shoulder burdens that the state is reaping benefits from, including becoming more of a collection agency and probation agency for the state.
The goal was to see if the county can cut costs while still providing its main services.
“We’re good for this year, you know, ‘til the next fiscal year goes into effect,” Fraughton emphasized, adding that there are no cuts or changes set in stone and that these sessions are just preliminary.
However, as the county tightens its belt, some employees have already been laid off and the county expects to have to lay off even more if things continue as they are. The Uinta County Sheriff’s Office is already down four employees, although the office has cut positions through attrition and not through layoffs. Some other departments have cut employees as well.
Fraughton said he hopes that does not happen, though, as it affects livelihoods and people. And when people are affected, the county’s work and efficiency is also affected.
Furthermore, the county has to adhere to its statutory requirements and provide essential services, so there are limits to what the county can cut.
“Everything we’ve been discussing and going over is all preliminary,” Fraughton emphasized. “... We’re just trying to work it out the best we can.”
He held out hope that things might turn around.
“I hope to see the economy start building back up, where we get the oil industry back doing something,” he said.
There may be signs of recovery already; there is a windmill farm being built north of town, and Westmoreland just bought the Haystack coal mine. If those start producing, Uinta County will start getting revenue a year later. Fraughton said the oil industry has been at a standstill for 18-24 months already, so he hopes it will start turning around soon.
Although there is hope on the horizon, it could be a long time in coming, and in the meantime, the county may have no other option than to cut positions and services.
“Money’s tight and people are concerned, and we’re all going to have to buckle down,” South said. “... We’re still just in the preliminary stages, trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”