County prepares to cut after I-747 passes

It’s belt tightening time for Island County government.

Now that Initiative 747 gained voter approval on Tuesday, Island County commissioners have the difficult job of making do with less in the way of funding from property taxes. This, while yet attempting to retain a modicum of the basic and often essential services — such as law enforcement — typically provided by local government.

It’s certainly not the case that voter approval of I-747 blindsided anyone. The initiative led by significant margins in all polls taken before election day, and passed easily.

According to Chairman Bill Thorn, county commissioners — engaged since early September in preliminary budget talks — have had in place contingency plan for the potential passage of Tim Eyman’s initiative, which freezes annual property tax increases at 1 percent unless otherwise approved by special levy.

“We assumed in our draft budgets that it would probably pass,” Thorn said Thursday. “The problem we’re dealing with already includes the initiative.”

Thorn said that the difficulties of budgeting around I-747 funding cuts are significantly compounded by the recent tanking of interest rates and the drop in sales tax revenues following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Regarding plummeting interest rates, Thorn said that the county is expecting a 30 to 40 percent drop in investment earnings as compared to prior years. Couple this with next year’s anticipated loss of $590,000 to Island County government in the wake of I-747, and the commissioners are looking at a shortfall of between $1 and $1.5 million in revenue, Thorn said.

He noted that it would be much easier “if we only had one of these three problems to deal with.”

The commissioners are now weighing their options for balancing the budget for the coming year through various money saving measures, which is largely a matter of prioritizing among those services most important to the public. Both Thorn and Commissioner Mac McDowell said that the board is concerned with maintaining the current status of law enforcement.

“Our priority is the sheriff’s department,” McDowell said.

“At this point in time,” said Thorn, “you sort of retreat to the basics,” which he defined as the “welfare, health and security of the county . . .those areas would be very difficult for us to come to any kind of cuts,” he added.

Thorn said one bright spot concerning county funding is the potential passage of the rural counties bill now being considered by the legislature. The revised bill would grant rural designation to those counties that are 225 square miles in size or less, regardless of population density. It is aimed specifically at Island County with its 211 square miles. The bill could equal over $400,000 in additional funding, Thorn said.

“That would provide us with some very tangible relief,” he added.

Other than this, the commissioners are currently bouncing around numerous ideas on how to cut expenses. Thorn said that the board is reluctant to start enacting personnel cuts, though he added that lay-off are “one of those things you have to look at.”

As for seeking funding through a special levy, Thorn said he doesn’t anticipate going that route in the near future. “We haven’t gone that far in our thinking,” he said.

Elected officials met on Friday in the County Annex to discuss the impending impact of budget shortfalls, and will meet again Tuesday morning at 11.

“We are looking at adjusting some fee schedules, we’re looking at county hours,” said Thorn. Commissioners are also looking at extending the turnover rate for new county vehicles from 7 to 10 years, though, Thorn added, this only postpones the problem.

“We’re going to try to find some solutions that are the least impact to the public,” he added. “We’re trying to keep the county service deliveries as best we can within these constraints.”

The proposed reduction of county work hours from 40 to 38 would trim about 5 percent from the existing budget, though during Friday’s special session the idea encountered resistance from some department heads — most notably Health Department Director Tim McDonald — claiming they are already functioning at maximum capacity.

“The three of us believe firmly that there isn’t a department in the county that’s overstaffed,” Thorn said on behalf of the board.

In weighing lay-offs versus an across-the-board reduction of county hours, Commissioner Mike Shelton seemed to capture the mood of the meeting when he said, “There just isn’t a painless way to do this.”

McDowell said that commissioners are considering using $700,000 of the county’s existing $1.2 million reserve, which still leaves the county with a $300,000 shortfall. How this funding deficit will be absorbed — through program cuts, lay-offs, trimming hours or some other means — will most likely be decided within the next couple of weeks, though, McDowell added, “nothing’s cast in stone yet.”

Despite these constraints, McDowell believes in the arguments supporting I-747. “I fully understand why people voted for it,” he said, even though “it makes it a little tough for local government.”

“People think all taxes, including their federal taxes, are too high, which I tend to agree with,” said McDowell.

“I think people should have a say in how much government service they want,” he added, adding that “the only thing they have any control over individually is their property taxes.”

“Many voters believe that there is slack that can be taken up in government,” Thorn said, adding that in any system there are “economies to make.” He said that I-747, with its mandate for tax limits, presents “a very appealing argument to anyone.”

Thorn added, however, that it’s all a matter of degrees.

“Island County, for several years, has been running pretty lean,” he said. From this perspective, Thorn said that “there’s probably not a general understanding” of how severely the initiative impacts government services.

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