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County orders cuts by Friday

Island County commissioners brought an unbalanced budget to the table at a public hearing on Monday, searching for drastic ways to make up for a $991,000 shortfall in current expense revenues for 2002.

In the end, Commissioner Bill Thorn requested of the assembled elected officials and department heads that they find a means of cutting 6 percent from their respective budgets by no later than Friday, or the board would do it for them.

Total current expenses for Island County government in 2002 have been projected at $18,103,480, minus the estimated revenue shortfall.

The tone of the meeting was bleak, as commissioners batted around various ways of balancing a budget that’s been severely eaten into by plummeting interest rates, poor sales tax revenues and the passage of Initiative 747, which freezes annual property tax increases at 1 percent. A recent state Dept. of Revenue report on the effects of I-747 put funding losses to Island County government next year at about $590,000, and approximately $4.5 million by 2007.

“What we need to address is are we going to cut programs and try and limp by,” said Commissioner Mac McDowell, who proposed that the board weight the cost-benefits of either shortening county operating hours or making across-the-board cuts in programs and personnel.

Commissioner Mike Shelton warned that, despite the potential harshness of the cuts enacted for 2002, the measures taken to balance the budget for 2003 will likely be much worse.

“We need to make some hard decisions,” said Shelton. “It seems to me that the methodology we want to take towards this year’s budget needs to be somewhat tempered by what we do next year. The impact on the 2003 budget is going to be draconian compared to what we have this year.”

He added: “The cuts over the next two years are going to be beyond the fat, beyond the meat, and we’re going to be cutting down to the bone.”

Shelton said that while he first supported using $700,000 of the county’s existing $1.2 million in reserves to help true the budget, now he’s not so sure about the wisdom of such a move, given future shortfalls.

Commissioner Bill Thorn concurred. “I’m nervous and reticent to take a full $700,000 of reserves when we have only $1.2 million to work with,” he said.

Doing some quick math, Shelton proposed using $350,000 of the reserves, and then enacting 4 percent cuts through each county department. This amount was then upped to 4.5 percent, then 5 percent, until commissioners finally settled on 6 percent cuts.

“We better adjourn this meeting now,” said Shelton, bringing a rare moment of levity to the proceedings.

Department of Health Director Tim McDonald said that, of the options being weighed, he would welcome the opportunity to come up with his own cuts throughout the health department, rather than suffer a truncating of operating hours or some other brand of across-the-board whittling.

A major concerned aired by the board was the seemingly unavoidable loss of entire programs, such as senior home care or various health department services, despite the fact that many of those programs may be mandated by state law.

“We cannot sustain the mandates when the money doesn’t support them,” said Thorn.

“What we’re really struggling with is that we’re cutting things we shouldn’t be cutting, but we don’t have a choice,” said Shelton, who added that “maybe we cannot continue to do business the way that we would like to do business.”

Thorn, in summing up the proceedings, seemed to touch upon the complex and difficult interaction of recent national events, not least of all the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“We’ve had a good run for 10 years,” he said. “We’ve had a complete paradigm shift here. This is a new world.”

Thorn said that the final budget most likely will not be adopted until the deadline of Dec. 24, which he called “down to the wire.”

Commissioners will continue their budget deliberations at an open public hearing at 1:30 pm on Monday, Dec. 10, at the Island County Annex in Coupeville.

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