County Administrator Buddy Roogow said this week he is concerned that a cruel winter could evaporate the 5 to 10 percent savings he is hoping to make in the county budget.
Roogow's biggest worry is whether there is enough money in the county's contingency fund to cover expenses in the event of a prolonged cold snap or several heavy snowfalls.
The county "does not have a lot of flexibility," said budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks. Only $410,000 is budgeted for snow removal this winter and that could be wiped out in just one or two snowfalls.
Last year, for example, an early snowfall over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend cost the county "close to $300,000" because of overtime and holiday pay, said Frederick A. Simmons, administrative services officer for the county bureau of highways.
A 4-inch snowfall Dec. 8 and 9 cost the county $270,000 and was followed three days later by a 4-inch snowfall that cost the county $150,000, Simmons said. From Nov. 22 to Dec. 12, the county had spent $720,000 on snow removal -- nearly twice what was budgeted.
After December, the weather turned mild and the county was able to escape unscathed, with the contingency fund covering the extra costs incurred by the early snows.
This year, the administration had budgeted $1.9 million for the contingency fund, but the County Council slashed that amount by $700,000 when it cut the tax rate by 4 cents.
Of the $1.2 million remaining in the emergency fund, $500,000 was set aside to help pay extra costs resulting from a new police union contract.
Early snow costs again this winter could mean overspending the budget by $310,000 -- leaving only $390,000 in the contingency fund.
Once the contingency fund is used up, the county would have to start dipping into the $5 million that department heads hope to save by deferring capital expenditures until spring, county administrator Roogow said.
Also, there could be other "emergencies" requiring use of contingency money, such as an increase in the number of prisoners at the county detention center, Roogow said. "We don't want to spend it all on snow removal."
The other winter expense that could cripple cost savings, Roogow said, is heating oil. While the county topped off its tanks prior to the Persian Gulf crisis, it does not have the capacity to store heating oil, and will have to purchase more fuel during the winter months, Roogow said. Already, gasoline costs for county vehicles are "substantially more than budgeted," he said.
Meanwhile, most department heads have developed an acceptable plan to trim current expenditures by 5 to 10 percent, Roogow said. Departments having the most difficulty complying with his mid-October request are those like finance, much of whose costs are for personnel.
Agencies over which the county has no direct control, like the school system, are looking to make cuts similar to those he has asked from department heads, Roogow said. He said he was "pleased and gratified by the response" he is receiving from School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
The county's economic crunch, brought on by a slowdown in the economy and the Persian Gulf situation, will also affect next year's budget, Roogow said.
Information for that budget will begin to be collected in the next two weeks. And while no new programs are expected, "even holding the line means some things will go up," budget administrator Wacks said.
Already, 86 county positions remain vacant because of recent budget trimming and will not be filled unless the job is of a critical nature, Wacks said.
The kinds of costs guaranteed to expand even in a tight budget, Wacks said, are social security payments and contractual services for things like trash collection.
The current budget covers revenues and expenses through June 30.
Preliminary hearings on items to be included in the next budget will begin in December.