Painful Island County cuts ready for public comment
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
September 20, 2010 · Updated 9:18 AM
Following a whirlwind week of meetings, the Island County commissioners finalized a budget, complete with $2 million in cuts, they will present to the public at an Oct. 4 hearing.
The commissioners took pains to emphasize that the document is not the final word on the budget cuts, but that a lot of fine tuning may occur after the public has their say.
“This year more than any other, it’s more of a living and breathing document and there is some room for flexibility,” Commissioner John Dean said.
The cuts in the budget are largely the same as commissioners had discussed in June, with some small changes. They decided, for example, to cut their contribution to senior services to 40 percent; the cut was originally set at 30 percent.
A nutrition program for women and babies, two maternity support programs, flu shots, six patrol deputies, three corrections deputies, a deputy prosecutor, a paralegal, the impaired driving impact panel, the 4-H coordinator and the Master Gardener coordinator are all on the proposed chopping block.
The process wasn’t just quick, but went relatively smoothly this year. Perhaps the most animated discussion was between the board and Prosecutor Greg Banks, who urged the commissioners to completely cut out lower priority spending rather than spread the pain around.
“What’s more important, prosecuting criminal law or donating to a private nonprofit with other funding sources?” he asked, referring to the $158,000 the county is set to contribute to senior services next year.
With his budget cuts, Banks said he may no longer prosecute many misdemeanor crimes, including marijuana possession and driving without a license.
Banks went on to suggest that the commissioners get rid of dog control instead of the flu vaccination program, which is set to be cut. When the commissioners argued that dog control is mandated, he shot back that so is prosecuting criminals and other programs the commissioners aren’t adequately funding.
“If you would rather have animal control enforcement than criminal law enforcement, that’s a decision you’ve made. That’s on you,” he said.
The next day, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson did what Banks suggested. She offered to transfer the $110,000 budget for animal control, which is handled by separate contractors on Whidbey and Camano islands, to the sheriff’s office. She said the sheriff’s office could handle dog-related issues instead — which they already do to a limited degree — though she realized it would be at a lower level of service than the animal control officers provide.
Sheriff Mark Brown, however, was hesitant to accept the responsibility, though he said he would look into the idea and get back to the commissioners next week. After the meeting, Undersheriff Kelly Mauck said it may not make sense to get rid of the two animal control officers, who are essentially deputies dedicated to animal issues, in order to save one deputy.
Also, Commissioner Angie Homola made it clear that she wasn’t in favor of the idea. She even invited Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes to describe the importance of her duties to the commissioners. Dean didn’t express a strong opinion.
During the discussion with the sheriff, Homola pushed him to look to his administration for cuts.
“I don’t see where your administration is affected,” she said, pointing out that the administration in nearly all the other departments took hits with furloughs, or in some cases, lost their positions.
Brown, however, said it is more important than ever to have a strong, fully funded administration with people who are “extremely knowledgeable” about labor relations, labor laws and other issues. His administration includes an undersheriff, a chief civil deputy, an administrative assistant and a chief administrative deputy in the jail. It’s one less person than he’s allowed to have under statute, he said.
Undersheriff Mauck pointed out that members of the administration are exempt employees, so they can work long hours without accruing overtime pay. He, for example, can fill in with patrols and he won’t receive overtime.
“You can use them and abuse them a little more,” he said.
In a separate discussion, Homola also criticized the elected officials for a letter they presented to the commissioners last year, demanding that the commissioners cut all non-mandated spending before cutting into their budgets. She said she “didn’t appreciate” the strongly-worded document.
“That set a precedence that I think hurt us and hurt us through the levy lift process,” she said. Proposition 1, which would have raised $2 million in property taxes, was overwhelmingly turned down by voters in the primary.
During this budget cycle, the discussion about the issue was more subtle. Yet both Brown and Banks, who spearheaded the letter demanding non-mandated cuts, have still made it clear that they believe spending should be completely cut to senior services and WSU Extension. They pointed out that both have other sources of revenues and volunteer help galore.
The commissioners have made drastic cuts to both WSU Extension and senior services in the last two years. The draft 2011 current expense budget also has large decreases for both, but some funding still remains. There’s $158,000 for senior services and $95,000 for Extension.
The commissioners pointed out that the contributions leverage huge state and federal grants for the community. Also, they want to keep a safety net for the county’s most vulnerable seniors.
Near the end of the budget discussions, the commissioners and Budget Director Elaine Marlow made a final effort to scour the budget for money to restore to their highest priorities, which they identified as the health department, the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor. Homola also prioritized the treasurer’s office, which has major backlogs because of low staffing.
The commissioners made a final $61,000 in cuts over and beyond what was necessary, but placed it in a contingency fund where it could later be used to restore money to programs, perhaps based on public input.
The ongoing process is the fourth budget cut in two years. When it’s over, the commissioners will have cut $6.2 million of the current expense funds budget, which will be down to about $20 million next year.
Homola pointed out that the three Democratic commissioners have done nothing but cut spending. The county was run by Republican commissioners for decades and they increased spending year after year.
“The cliche of tax and spending just doesn’t go very far,” she said, referring to herself and her Democratic colleagues.Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.