County budget hearing: VOA requested restoration of Detox Center funding; Treasurer threatened reduced services

Commissioners Larry Allen and Keja Whiteman studied information on an iPad before the budget public hearing Monday night. (Ernie Over photo) 

(Lander, Wyo.) – Fremont County Department heads made their final appeals to the Board of County Commissioners Monday night at a public hearing on the county’s 2014 Fiscal Year Budget. The budget is scheduled for adoption at tomorrow (Tuesday’s) commission meeting.

Health Steel advocated reinstatement of funds cut from the social services budget for the Riverton alcohol detox center. (Ernie Over photo)

VOA’s Health Steel. (Ernie Over photo)

Several members of the public also attended, including Volunteers Of America (VOA) Northern Rockies Executive Vice President for Operations Health Steel. He reported that VOA has now completed the merger and acquisition of the Fremont County Alcohol Crisis Center in Riverton, and he said part of the deal was an assumption that the county would provide funding for the alcohol detoxification center at the same level it did last year, that is at $95,000. The commissioners, however, cut that allotment to $80,000 in their advertised budget. VOA had also asked for a contribution of $12,500 from the City of Riverton, the Wind River Casino on behalf of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and Fremont County to help get the center back on its feet and meet certification standards. Steel said so far the city and casino had provided their shares, but the county had not budgeted theirs, on top of the cut to the program.

“I’d ask at a minimum that we keep the initial allocation ($95K) understanding the adjustments we’ve been able to make. It’s absolutely vital that with the loss they had this past year that we move to the minimum of the $95,000 level,” he said. “We’d like to have a shot to finish what we’ve started.” He said VOA had added a clinician to the staff at the Riverton center and, with the help of the casino, had added computers, a security system and a new washer and dryer at the center.

Keith Janson of Shoshoni, gesturing, asked questions about the county road budget. (Ernie Over photo)

Keith Janson of Shoshoni, gesturing. (Ernie Over photo)

Shoshoni resident Keith Janson expressed his concern over a belief that the county wasn’t keeping its end of the deal on the one cent tax for infrastructure and he questioned the use of money the county would receive from the state’s new 10 cent per gallon excise tax on fuels.

Chairman Doug Thompson explained that the optional one-cent tax monies had its own budget and was separate from all other county funds as they had promised if the tax measure passed. He said those funds would have no other use than improving county roads and he said a committee comprised of county citizens, two from each commissioner district, had determined a priority list for the work.

Lloyd Eckstein (Ernie Over photo)

Lloyd Eckstein (Ernie Over photo)

The most drama of the public hearing came next when Nancy and Lloyd Eckstein made an appeal on behalf of the food bank they had operated out of their home north of Riverton, which is now closed. Nancy began the meeting by playing a recording from the couple’s telephone answering system from the Food Bank of the Rockies that indicated they are discontinuing their relationship with the Ecksteins. Unable to contain himself, Lloyd then pushed his wife away from the podium and was restrained several times by her as he threw three large three-ring binders on the commissioner’s table and yelled that they had lost $60,000 in grants to operate their food bank because the county failed to allocate any funds to them. “We’ve just been screwed, and I apologize to everyone except the county commissioners. You don’t give a damn about the people of Fremont County,” he yelled as he stormed out of the meeting room.

After calm was restored, Fremont County Youth Services Director Chuck Kratz asked the commissioners to reconsider his department’s salary proposal, which he said would benefit the staff and not the administrators.

Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe (Ernie Over photo)

Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe (Ernie Over photo)

Lander Mayor Mick Wolfe, Community Services Director Gary Michaud, and City Council Member Cade Maestas were up next, asking for the county to consider helping the city make up the shortfall in funding for a new community center to replace one that burned down nearly one year ago.

“We’re starting construction next week, and we’ll take the money out of our reserves if we have to, but we don’t want too because we have several big projects coming up including our sewer ponds and water system,” Wolfe said. Michaud noted that the low bid for the project came in $800,000 above the architects estimate and that funding from the state came in $700,000 less than what was expected. We have a $1.5 million shortfall, which is a pretty significant burden on the city. Michaud asked if the county could commit to granting the city $166,000 a year for the next three years for a total of $500,000.

Maestas said the proposal “would not hit any individual year too hard and would give us a chance to make it up.” He asked the amount come from the county’s CIMPL funding account for major capital expenditures, “to help us close that gap a little.”

Wolfe noted that the Lander Community Center had served, and will serve, all residents of the county, not just Lander residents, with the variety of events and activities held there.

Switching hats to represent the Fremont County Recreation Board, Maestas said the county had totally removed the line item for the Green Mountain Park southeast of Jeffrey City, and he asked if that could be reinstated. The amount of $250,000. Maestas said the amount was to fund all of the heavy equipment work needed at the site and doing it all at once would save money over mobilization costs by contractors if the project were to be piecemealed out over three or more years.

Co. Attoney Michael Bennett.

Co. Attoney Michael Bennett. (Ernie Over photo)

The last two requests came from Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney Michael Bennett who asked that $5,000 be restored to his travel line item so the younger attorneys in his office could have the benefit of attending seminars that had helped him when he was in their shoes. He said the training used to be at no cost from the National Prosecuting Attorney’s Association and all the county had to pick up were travel costs, but he said the NPAA is now charging for the seminars.

County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger closed the meeting by making an appeal to keep $40,000 in his salary line item for bonuses. The treasurer’s habit of giving bonuses instead of pay raises has been a bone of contention with previous county commissions and the issue came up again this year. “If not, we’ll reduce services in the treasurer’s office and reduce staff,” he said.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese discussed details of the county budget with the commissioners at Monday night's public hearing on the budget. The budget is slated for adoption on Tuesday. (Ernie Over photo)

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese discussed details of the county budget with the commissioners at Monday night’s public hearing on the budget. The budget is slated for adoption on Tuesday. (Ernie Over photo)