Island County considers 38-hour week

Island County elected officials, confronting a cut in funding following voter approval of Initiative 747, may decide to trim employees’ work week from 40 hours to 38 hours.

Despite the projected savings of 5 percent from existing expenditures, few department heads appear pleased with the prospect of a budgetary squeeze play that they argue could severely hamper their ability to offer the type and quality of service the public expects from local government.

According to a recent report on the consequences of I-747 released by the state Dept. of Revenue, Island County government will see approximately $590,000 less in state funding next year. With plummeting interest rates and a dip in sales tax revenues, elected officials estimate a 2002 budget shortfall of just under $1 million.

The question now facing Island County commissioners as they hash out next year’s budget is how they can continue to provide services such as health, police and emergency programs in the current climate of economic uncertainty.

No consensus was reached at a special budget session conducted at the Island County Annex last Tuesday. Department heads, testifying before county commissioners, debated the pros and cons of either peeling back hours or cutting out personnel and programs not mandated by law.

David Jamieson of the Island County Prosecutor’s office read to the board a letter written by Chief Prosecutor Greg Banks that questioned the wisdom of implementing a 38-hour work week, calling the proposal a “bad one.”

Banks said that reducing hours “will only serve to degrade the services provided by government, generating more misguided criticism of government and spurring on additional initiatives like the one that just passed.

“If the general level of the electorate’s understanding is limited to the here and now of their wallets, it is unlikely that they will every ‘get it,’ unless there is some immediate consequences to their actions,” said Banks.

He added that, if necessary, he would rather remove an attorney position than “deal with the effects of such a slow burn” he envisions with an across-the-board reduction of county hours. He proposed instead that the board “float” a property tax increase by special levy, letting the voters decide which programs and services they wish to fund.

Initiative 747 limits property taxes increases to 1 percent annually, but does allow that amount to be increased by the voters in a special election.

Island County Assessor Tom Baenen said that his office is already running behind by five months in preparing the latest tax calendar, and that there is a need to hire another assessor.

“The public needs to become aware of the fact of just how onerous this package is,” Baenen said of I-747. He added that the idea that there is excessive fat in the county budget is “the furthest thing from the truth.”

Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Jan Smith also testified that “to do more with less is to agree that we have fat” in the budget, which she added is “not true.”

“A 38-hour work week would mean a decrease in services across the board,” said Health Director Tim McDonald. He also pointed out that, within the partly fee-driven Health Department, a cut in hours would mean a cut in revenue as well as a cut in expenses.

Among the few department heads who said they could, if necessary, accommodate a shortened work week was Human Resources Director Dick Toft. He said that, with only one full time employee, a 38-hour schedule was “the only option that would make any sense in this office.”

Commissioner Mike Shelton noted that there is currently “a great amount of frustration in local government” as officials deal with a public that expects a status quo of programs and services while also voting for initiatives that take money away from those very services.

Shelton said that it is important for government officials to realize that, with the economy tanking, voters might be asking the government to “experience the pain that citizens are experiencing.

“People are voting their pocketbooks,” Shelton said, adding that it’s crucial for Island County government to keep providing “the best services we can within the budgetary limitations that we have.”

Shelton also warned that, economically speaking, things might not improve any time soon, and that if this weren’t the case it might be easier to accommodate immediate fiscal setbacks. “The future looks bleaker than it is today,” he said.

The commissioners will continue to mull their options. Meanwhile, they set a public hearing for adopting the 2002 budget for Dec. 3 at 1:30 p.m. in the Island County Annex in Coupeville.

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