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Raise planned for county employees in 2014 budget

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson motions during a recent meeting with county department heads about the 2014 budget. The commissioners went over their preliminary budget priorities. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson motions during a recent meeting with county department heads about the 2014 budget. The commissioners went over their preliminary budget priorities.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Years of financial uncertainty in Island County government may finally be coming to an end.

One of the first orders of business may be a pay raise.

A cost of living increase for county’s approximately 420 year-round employees was one of the few priorities to receive majority support from the Island County Board of Commissioners during its first budget planning meeting of the year.

“It’s become a critical issue for our organization and certainly a significant morale issue,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.

“Regardless of that, it’s the right thing to do.”

Beginning in 2008, the economy began to sour and once healthy revenue flows slowed to a trickle. The board answered by chopping millions from the general fund, and according to Price Johnson, by cutting 100 positions.

Employees also negotiated in “good faith” a reduction in benefits, she said. The lean times last longer than expected, she said, and employee salaries have been frozen since 2008.

The county has “stabilized” its revenues, however, and the budget is no longer in “free fall,” she said.

“Now, it’s time to get back to our staff and let them know that we are in a place where we can reinstate a COLA, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do that this year,” Price Johnson said.

Other priorities for the commissioners include the preservation of public safety, justice and health services. She also wants to improve and streamline internal processes and take steps to strengthen economic recovery.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said her primary focus is law and justice funding, but that support has limits.

“I don’t want to be a county that just offers a sheriff’s office,” she said.

She said she favors of giving county employees a cost of living increase, listing it as one of her top priorities. She also wants the county departments to be open to the public five days a week.

“I hate the signs around the county that say, ‘We’re going to provide you with poor service because of budget cuts,’” she said.

The reduction in staff resulted in many departments falling behind, so the board decided to close county offices to the public on Fridays. The idea was to give staff a chance to catch up on backlogged work.

“As the county’s financial position begins to improve, one of our responsibilities is to provide five-day-a-week service to the community,” Johnson said.

Board Chairwoman Kelly Emerson expressed concern about constituents, and that she “personally knows people who have or will move off the island if taxes continue to rise.”

When asked just what taxes she was referring to, she mentioned the Clean Water Utility, which is technically a fee. She also noted the cumulative impact of other municipalities and junior taxing districts, such as fire and school districts, and the county must do its part to keep taxes affordable.

There is also a different expectation from the public about level of service provided by government, she said. This is still a rural county and many people move here for that reason.

“What they want is to be left alone, to use their property and do what they want on their property,” Emerson said. “Other people move here and want all the services they had elsewhere. We have to find that balance.”

Emerson’s goal is to “make due with what we have.”

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