March 22, 2010 in City

Spokane County looking at budget staff

Officials have applications for new director, grants aide
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane County is moving to shore up its financial management with several new specialists.

A back-burner plan to hire a budget director will heat up next month. Commissioners plan to review applications for the job, which will pay $81,164 to $109,519 a year.

Fifty-two applications were received last fall when the job was advertised, and 44 met minimum qualifications.

Currently, Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell doubles as the budget director.

“I think the commissioners feel strongly about having someone who would just focus on the budget,” Farnell said. “We’re a big organization.”

He said there is “no particular time frame” for filling the position. “We’ve been taking our time, making sure we get the right person.”

County officials also plan to create a grant-accounting position in the Sheriff’s Office and to give grant czar Jennifer Stapleton a second assistant.

Stapleton said her new grants and contracts manager would focus initially on criminal justice programs, which account for more than two-thirds of the county general fund. She said 29 people have applied for the job, which will pay $43,000 to $58,000 a year. Officials hope to fill the position next month.

Commissioners plan to pay for Stapleton’s new assistant with an “indirect cost plan” that charges departments a portion of their grant receipts. Some grants don’t allow that, but Stapleton said she’s confident the plan will work.

Stapleton was hired about two years ago to bring central oversight and expertise to a chaotic system. Individual departments often obtained grants with hidden costs and complicated rules they couldn’t handle.

The Sheriff’s Office has the most grants and reimbursement contracts of any general fund program – about 60 last year, for approximately $2.6 million. But the office has only a “technical assistant III” to handle the accounting.

Farnell supports Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s plan to hire someone with financial expertise because inability to collect grant payments promptly hampers the county’s ability to pay its bills.

Some large departments need in-house accountants in addition to Stapleton’s oversight to keep grant money flowing, Farnell said.

“Cash-flow is a big deal,” he told county commissioners last week.

Farnell said failure to submit bills quickly and follow up on problems contributed to an $822,000 cash-flow deficit in Sheriff’s Office grant and contract payments.

Most of that amount is normal – expenditures for which timely reimbursement is pending – but Stapleton said in an interview that nearly $340,000 of the total should already have been collected.

Stapleton said the Sheriff’s Office still hadn’t billed grant agencies for $257,665 worth of 2009 expenses. Also, she said, reimbursement was overdue for approximately $82,000 worth of billed expenses.

Undersheriff Jeff Tower said in an interview that the number of grants and contracts has increased fivefold since 2003.

“That’s the kind of burden our grants office is operating under,” he said.

Lightening the load isn’t easy in a county budget that required $13 million worth of cuts, 40 layoffs and elimination of 140 positions.

Knezovich thinks commissioners “are going to have to float me a little bit” to pay for a grant accountant, but Farnell doesn’t want commissioners to dip into reserves he says are already too low.

“Generally speaking, we need to hold our line this year,” Farnell said. “We went through pure hell in trying to come about a balance in 2010.”

Tower was checking last week to see whether the accounting position could be funded by leaving some jail clerical positions unfilled.

Salary range and other details of the new position hadn’t been decided.


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