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"Budgets need a boost, say county officials"
"There was no question that Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley wished to instill some alarm when he presented his department's budget request to county commissioners Wednesday.We're nearing the breaking point. It's gotten out of hand and we need help, Hawley said in impassioned tones. I can't say our deputies are working in a reasonably safe environment right now.Hawley's comments about serious understaffing in his department came at the end of a string of 2001 budget presentations by the law and justice departments Wednesday. The commissioners are holding six workshops with county department heads during September and October in order to see what it will cost to keep Island County running in the coming year. Before January, the commissioners will have to find a balance between the county's potential expenses for 2001 and its anticipated revenue. Then they'll have to decide whether or not to raise local property taxes to make up any difference.Finding that balance won't be easy. Especially since the county will have to work without close to a half million dollars in state sales tax equalization money next year as a result of Initiative 695, the car tab measure that passed last November.At the same time, needs are up. During the workshops, many of the county's officials have asked for varying increases in staff, supplies and operating budgets to keep pace with rising costs and the demands of a growing county population. Prior to Wednesday's workshop, the commissioners were already looking at about $300,000 in additional budget requests from departments such as the Auditor, Assessor, Planning and Maintenance. Just the same, they expected that the workshop with the law and justice departments would produce some of the largest requests.That proved to be the case. Hawley said the Sheriff's Office needs at least three more patrol deputies, a jail deputy and an additional clerical person to bring staffing up to a minimal level. He also asked for budget increases to pay for the higher costs in overtime, prisoner transport, inmate medical care and gasoline. In all, Hawley said he needs about $391,000 more in next year's budget.Hawley underscored his requests with data showing that his current staff is stretched too thin. Calls for service to 911 totaled 15,939 in 1997 while the number of calls in 2000 are projected to reach 24,000. That means that, on average, each deputy will handle about 545 calls this year compared to about 362 calls in 1997.In the Los Angeles Police Department, last time I checked, they were handling about 450, said Hawley. He said the result is that many of his deputies are handling calls without adequate backup and having to prioritize their response.While the demand for police service keeps growing geometrically, Hawley said, his department has only seen a net gain in staff levels of one employee since 1997. Though he insisted that the public is still safe, Hawley did express considerable concern about the safety of his deputies in the field. He also emphasized that his request for more personnel has been the same through many years of budget proposals. I've asked for three (deputies) since I got here, but if you really want to know what we need, it's 11 deputies.BUT WAIT, THERE'S MOREIn addition to Hawley, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks also appealed to the commissioners for an adequate level of staffing to handle the ever-growing workload his department faces.Since 1997, filed felony cases have increased by over 56 percent without additional legal staff, Banks pointed out in his budget proposal.We're in court a lot more and we're scrambling to keep up with it, he said. We've really reached the point where mistakes are being made. It's not working.Banks requested another deputy prosecuting attorney be added to his staff in 2001. He said the new deputy's duties would be divided between civil work on such things as contract reviews; child support and paternity cases; and what looms as a potentially busy area of land-use litigation as the county begins to implement new and often more-restrictive comprehensive growth plan regulations. The new attorney would cost the county about $60,000 more per year in salary and benefits.AND MORE ...Other departments also asked for budget boosts. Superior Court officials requested the addition of two new employees, a court facilitator and a second bailiff, which could potentially be paid for with increases in fees. They also said the current court tape recording system is long overdue for replacement. The system is difficult to repair and spare parts are hard to come by. They reported that one case had to be dismissed last year because the court recording was inaudible.Juvenile Court Administrator Mike Merringer asked for about a $3,200 budget increase, reflecting, among other things, the need for new computer software, higher fuel prices and the increased cost of employee travel.The Public Defender's Office showed needs for more money to cover the costs for such things as expert witnesses, paper and other office supplies, and Island County Clerk Marilee Black said her department would need an additional $1,500 in supply costs.TOUGH JOB AHEADAt this point the commissioners are pretty much in receiving mode only, making very few direct comments about the budget proposals. Most of their number crunching will come toward the end of October when they begin conducting meetings with county budget director Margaret Rosenkranz.But during Wednesday's workshop the commissions didn't provide much encouragement to the department heads. Commissioner Mac McDowell said that if all the department requests were combined the total could approach $1 million in additional expense.I assure you we don't have those revenues, he said.The commissioners are only legally allowed to boost property taxes by the rate of inflation each year. They can, however, declare a substantial need which permits them to raise the maximum general fund tax rate by 6 percent.Last year commissioners chose to take only a minimal 1.42 percent increase in taxes for the general fund budget. The year before was the first time in many years that the commissioners opted to take the full 6 percent hike. Even so, the big bite added only about $283,000 dollars to the county's general fund.Workshop meetings with the Public Works, Community Development and Solid Waste departments will take place Oct. 2. An Oct. 9 workshop will hear budget requests from Public Health. The Coroner, Budget Director and the commissioners themselves will present their respective 2001 budget proposals Oct. 16. "