Whitman Co. Commissioners examine ways to straighten the county's finances

PULLMAN, WA - Whitman County's financial system has been scrutinized in recent months after incomplete financial statements led to an unfavorable audit report from the state, and suspension of the county's credit rating.

Now the county commissioners are working on a strategic plan to create a sustainable budget, and Reporter Rachel Dubrovin explains how the board is searching for solutions to county's financial troubles.

"We have been putting out fires and not looking ahead," said District 3 Whitman County Commissioner Michael Largent. "We have got to put ourselves into a proactive stance."

The Whitman County Commissioners came together in Pullman for a special two-day meeting focused on strategic planning. The budget was one of the main topics.

"We are responsible to our taxpayers," said Largent.

District One Commissioner Art Swannack compared this financial planning to something many Whitman County taxpayers are familiar with farming.

"You kind of think of that as a farmer, ahead, okay well if things don't go quite right, looking at what's happening, then I'm going to back off on these areas," said Swannack.

But Swannack said long-term budget planning is challenging because state laws limit the county's income from taxes.

"Ya, you've got the lid lift, but after that they're only growing one-percent a year on the property tax section, which is two-thirds of that money," said Swannack.

Largent explained that budgeting for the long-term will likely come down to cuts.

"You end up with very difficult and unpopular decisions in front of you," said Largent.

One of those unpopular decisions could be cuts in staffing. The commissioners discussed reducing the county workforce so they could afford to pay employees better. District Two Commissioner Dean Kinzer said employees get automatic step increases after a certain period of time, but those small pay raises don't really motivate them.

"It's just recognized as entitlement right now," said Kinzer.

The commissioners agreed that rewarding employees for excellence could help alleviate their current issues with recruitment and retention.

The commissioners will conclude their two-day meeting Thursday evening. Moving forward, the board plans to develop a strategic plan and accounting policy that will help them create a sustainable, resource-driven budget.