Deputies, mothers, babies targeted in Island County budget cuts
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
August 23, 2010 · Updated 9:39 AM
The Island County sheriff has come out fighting in response to voters’ overwhelming rejection of Proposition 1 in Tuesday’s primary, asking that county commissioners eliminate all funding for programs not specifically required by law.
By a 71 percent majority, voters refuted the property tax lid lift that would have filled in the funding gap and allowed commissioners to keep the $21 million current expense fund static.
The commissioners are quickly moving ahead with preparing a 2011 budget with $2 million in cuts. They are considering a mix of cuts, including a 10 percent reduction in law and justice funding, along with large reductions in non-mandated programs such as WSU Extension, parks, senior services and certain health department activities.
Sheriff Mark Brown reignited the debate over the funding of non-mandated programs in a tough-worded letter he sent to commissioners Friday. He asks them to first eliminate funding to all non-mandated services, which would amount to about $350,000, but he has acknowledged that cuts to law and justice may still be necessary.
“I want to make it perfectly clear that it is my opinion and strong belief that the failure of Proposition 1 was, in no way, a reflection that our Citizens do not support public safety or the Island County Sheriff’s Office,” he wrote. “Citizens have repeatedly commented to me that they felt as if the Sheriff’s Office was being used as a ‘pawn’ in an attempt to pass a tax hike and were not confident that the Board of County Commissioners would in fact support law and justice with money generated from Proposition 1.”
During a brief budget discussion Wednesday, the three commissioners directed Budget Director Elaine Marlow to send memos to all elected officials and department heads, asking them to submit proposed budgets based on the budget scenarios presented in June.
“Every department will be looked at very closely to see if we can find additional budget cuts,” Marlow said.
The commissioners hope to complete the budget early this year — by the end of October — so that everyone affected will have time to prepare.
Yet the process so far may not have strictly followed state law. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said that a “budget call” or statutory procedure for the start of the budget process was supposed to have occurred on or before the second Monday in July. Under state law, the county auditor or the designated chief financial officer was supposed to notify all elected officials and department heads in July to submit detailed budgets no later than the second Monday in August.
“I’m still waiting,” said Banks, who’s been a critic of the commissioners’ budget process in the past.
The cuts in the budget proposed by the commissioners include: a 10 percent reduction in the law and justice departments; elimination of funding for 4-H and Master Gardeners at WSU Extension; cutting all parks maintenance; elimination of the Children’s Commission and 40 to 50 percent of the current expense funding for the health department; 40 percent reduction of county funding to seniors services; a 10 percent reduction in dog control and a 5 percent cut in the animal shelter budget; a 5 percent reduction in budgets for the assessor, auditor and treasurer; and a 5 percent cut in emergency management.
Brown said a 10 percent cut to his office would mean laying off seven to 10 deputies.
Banks said the 10 percent cut would mean laying off a deputy prosecutor and a paralegal; to deal with the loss of staff, one option is to stop prosecuting most misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes.
Health Director Keith Higman said the prescribed cuts would largely affect mothers and their children. They would spell the end of the county’s participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, as well as a couple of programs in which nurses help new mothers.
Marlow said that the county is still negotiating the unions about changing health insurance to a less expensive plan. Last year, the county estimated that such a switch could save as much as $750,000 a year. Instead, the largest union chose to cut employees hours to save a comparable amount.
Without agreements from the union, finding more ways to cut the budget may be tough. From 2008 to 2010, commissioners cut 20 percent of the budget, which resulted in the layoffs of more than 50 positions.
It may not be pretty, but Marlow hopes the budget pruning process doesn’t get ugly.
“I would hope that the conversation stays professional,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.