Island County museum fans protest cut as commissioners finalize budget

The Island County Commissioners are on the verge of hammering out a working budget this week.

The last of series of workshops is expected to be held today and the board will then move forward with the formal adoption process of the 2013 budget, beginning with a public hearing next week.

The meeting begins at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, and will be held in the Commissioner’s Hearing Room at 1 NE Sixth Street in Coupeville.

This year’s budget process was easier than in recent years as large cuts were not required to stay in the black, but it wasn’t without its headaches. Department heads and elected officials collectively made $1.9 million in additional funding requests.

Initially, it appeared the board was going to have a hard time making everyone happy as the $21.7 million general fund — a discretionary pot of money — was expected to be largely static with revenues paralleling expenditures.

“They are impossible choices,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, chairwoman of the board. “It made it really hard because everybody has big needs.”

However, many of the supplemental budget requests will move forward, thanks to some last-minute wrangling of existing revenues and indirect costs of special revenue sources that provide non-discretionary funding.

In total, it provided nearly $500,000 for redistribution among the various departments that had requested additional revenues. Of the eight that asked for additional staffing — the priciest expenses — six are proposed under the draft budget to have their requests either fully or partially funded.

Not everyone is cheering, however. The Island County Historical Society receives money annually from the county and the board has decided to reduce next year’s allocation by 66 percent — from $12,000 to $5,000.

“This presents a shortfall of devastating impact,” Island County Historical Society Executive Director Rick Castellano wrote in an email distributed Friday.

Museum supporters rallied to the cry and appealed to the board during its regular meeting on Monday.

“If we have to shut down the museum, it is not going to be like turning off a light switch and turning it back on,” said Georgia Gardner, a Coupeville resident who also serves as a Whidbey General Hospital Commissioner. “To try to get it back would be an almost insurmountable hurdle.”

Price Johnson said during the meeting that historical preservation is important but purse strings are particularly tight this year.

“My concern is that although I think it is appropriate for the county to help support (the museum), the ability to do so has to be based on the revenue stream,” Price Johnson said. “Dipping into the savings was to bridge the gap, but it is not sustainable.”

Others who aren’t thrilled by the draft budget include Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, though he’s not complaining. Of the $1.9 requested from department heads, Brown asked for $1.4 million of it.

He was seeking funding to hire 10 additional patrol deputies and three more correctional officers along with purchasing eight new squad cars and the money to pay for the extra fuel and training that would accompany the new hires.

The board has agreed to fund one corrections officer at $65,000, and four new vehicles at $45,000 apiece.

“I don’t know if I can be happy about what I got, but I’m thankful it’s more than I have now,” the sheriff said.

While the $245,000 total amounts to the largest allocation of additional funding that will go to any department this year, Brown said it’s still far short of what he needs.

There are still a few last-minute decisions and variables that may affect the final budget.

One is a proposal by Island County Commissioner Angie Homola to give county employees their first cost of living increase in years. The board is, so far, undecided on the matter.

Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow declined to say whether there was money available for such an allocation, partially because the sheriff and corrections guilds are in contract arbitration.

“I don’t think it would be prudent to comment on that at this time,” she said.

Also undecided is funding requests for additional staffing in the planning department. Commissioner Kelly Emerson believes the department is overstaffed while Homola and Price Johnson support providing some help.

Finally, Marlow said she is worried about how reductions in federal and state funding and how the continuing downward slide of sales tax revenue on Whidbey Island might affect county coffers.

“Overall, I’m very concerned about revenues,” Marlow said.



— Staff reporter Elisabeth Murray contributed to this story.


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