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Island County officials vie for dollars

Island County’s annual budget process will begin in earnest next week with the first of a series of public meetings planned to run into October.

Compared to recent years, the county’s budget has stabilized but public officials are steeling themselves for a difficult budget cycle, one that is expected to last at least six weeks.

Based on a tentative schedule, the budget creation process kicks off Tuesday when the commissioners begin to meet individually with the county’s 19 department heads and elected officials.

Once those meetings wrap up, the board will dive into a series of eight workshops that are scheduled through September. A public hearing will follow, in which the board will take official action and formally adopt the budget.

That meeting begins Oct. 1 and could be continued for several days.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who is chairperson of the board, said she is expecting another difficult budget cycle and the need for finding efficiencies in spending will be great.

“There is going to be some more tough conversations because things are still pretty tight,” Price Johnson said.

Over the past four years, the board has had to cut millions to balance the budget. According to Budget Director Elaine Marlow, current expense fund expenditures in 2008 peaked at about $26 million. That compares to the approved 2012 budget of about $21.6 million.

However, Marlow said the county’s budget woes have largely stabilized as revenues and expenditures are expected to keep pace over the course of 2013.

“I don’t believe we will have a deficit,” Marlow said. “That is good news.”

But this won’t be an easy budget process. Department leaders have been struggling to make do with less and while they have managed well, many are asking for assistance, Marlow said.

Budget requests from individual departments haven’t all been reviewed yet, but so far the sheriff, the treasurer, IT and planning have all asked for staff increases. A shortfall may not be eminent, but there isn’t enough money to fund all four requests much less any others, Marlow said.

It seems many will be going home disappointed, but they will be able to make their case before the board and other county leaders. A roundtable discussion of all department heads has been scheduled for Aug. 29.

“They have been asked to be prepared to address critical questions of their budget,” Marlow said.

Price Johnson said there is no magic pot of money to satisfy everyone’s needs; it will be a difficult process. She compared budget to a pillow — when you push on one side the other moves.

“I’ll be looking forward to working with them to come up with some creative solutions for 2013,” she said.

All of this year’s budget meetings will be recorded and made available for general viewing on the county’s website, www.islandcounty.net.

 

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