Kittitas County Courthouse

Kittitas County has remained fiscally stable during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is beginning to look at budget projections for 2021.

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While many counties across the nation are struggling financially due to the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kittitas County is remaining stable due to a conservative budgeting approach, according to Kittitas County Commissioner Brett Wachsmith.

Wachsmith said the county has had a long track record of looking at their fiscal balancing from a conservative approach, placing them in a strong position prior to the pandemic reaching the county.

“Our two biggest sources of revenue for our general fund are property tax collection and sales tax collections,” he said. “The treasurer’s office has not really seen a decline in the collection rate they’ve had in 2020 compared to prior years.”

Wachsmith said the county budgeted approximately $4 million in general sales tax collections for the 2020, and said the county is on pace to exceed that number based on the current collection rate.

In order to conservatively approach the budget, Wachsmith said the county looks at the last five years worth of data in order to use a year-by-year comparison to model a trend that will give them a realistic concept of what the next year may bring.

“Right now, we’re going to start the process for the 2021 budget,” he said. “We would take the five prior years to see where we are at. We also go as far as looking where the current market is at for our investment interest.”

Wachsmith said the county also looks at major projects that are currently happening or will happen in the coming year to gauge an estimate of the revenue they will bring. One example he used was the sales tax bump the county saw during the construction of the wildlife overpass on Interstate 90.

“We treated that as essentially one-time money,” he said. “We saw this huge spike in revenue for one year, so we have to be cognizant of projects that are ongoing or that are coming to their end. That goes into the general fund for the county.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Washington state, Wachsmith said the county took a holistic approach in looking at data related to incoming revenue sources to the general fund, including lodging tax and money used for economic development.

“What we did was we kind of put everything on a hold to see where we were at, so we didn’t have to make drastic changes if we were to obligate some of those funds,” he said.

Now that the data has shown the county remaining fiscally stable, Wachsmith said the holds can be lifted and funds can be dispersed to the entities that need it. While the county was allocated $2.5 million of federal CARES Act money, he said those funds cannot be used to supplement any lost revenues, but can be put to good use to keep the county’s wheels turning.

“What it can be used for is to get the courts up and running as far as getting virtual hearings, the same as with the Board of County Commissioners,” he said. “Doing virtual meetings that way with the technology needed.”

Wachsmith said the receipt of the federal funding came around the time the county began to receive property tax payments for the year, and he said it was an encouraging sign that those payments didn’t drop off amidst the pandemic.

“The county was able to allocate a portion of our CARES funds directly for economic recovery for small businesses throughout the county,” he said.

As an example of the county pushing forward through the pandemic, Wachsmith pointed out how Kittitas County Public Works and Community Development Services has remained busy with new construction projects around the county, with most of them bringing in revenue.

Looking ahead, Wachsmith said the county will keep an eye on ongoing operational costs for 2021 and beyond. He said the county is looking at paying off debt early, some of which involved the work done on the county’s correctional facility.

“What we’re doing is we’re going to use some of our reserves to pay those off early, so we can reduce the ongoing debt service costs,” he said.

As the county begins to look at 2021 budget modeling, Wachsmith said one of the board’s budget priorities for the coming year is to invest in technology to reduce long-term overhead costs.

“We can become more efficient with the technology that we use,” he said.

While not out of the clear as the pandemic relates to the impact on the community as a whole, Wachsmith said he is confident that the county will continue to push forward on an even financial keel, while ensuring social services and assistance remains available for both businesses and residents in need.

“At this time, I don’t see a huge cut to any of the services the county provides,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about where Kittitas County is.”

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