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Law & justice on the cutting board

Bill Thorn, chairman of the Island County Board of Commissioners, listens during one of the county’s recent budget cutting sessions. - Ken George
Bill Thorn, chairman of the Island County Board of Commissioners, listens during one of the county’s recent budget cutting sessions.
— image credit: Ken George

One sheriff’s deputy and one deputy prosecuting attorney are among those likely to fall victim to Island County budget cuts.

Last week, the Island County Board of Commissioners gritted their collective teeth and demanded that each county department trim 6 percent from its existing budget.

This week, they saw the severe impact such an across-the-board cut could have, especially on law and justice services. The sheriff’s department alone brought to the table a cut of $282,000, or roughly the equivalent of 5 active deputies.

“Obviously, it would just cripple our operation,” said Sheriff Mike Hawley in an interview on Tuesday.

In the end, the board refused to accept such a severe cut-back, suggesting instead to lop $60,000 from the sheriff’s budget.

In an ongoing attempt to right an unbalanced budget, not only Hawley but all Island County department heads came to Monday’s board meeting with a variety of proposed cuts, putting the board in the difficult position of deciding which accept and which to let pass, either fully or in part.

The county budget for 2002, crimped by declining interest rates, poor sales tax returns and a loss of state funding following the passage of Initiative 747, is currently showing a shortfall in revenue of about $991,000.

The board does have a reserve of approximately $1.2 million with which to soften the blow, though concern about even worse forecasts for coming years has brought about reluctance to eat into the cushion too incautiously.

The requested departmental cuts would be added to some portion of the reserve in order to hammer out a working budget by Dec. 24, the legal deadline for approval.

“I sincerely appreciate the effort that most of you made in finding ways of cutting expenses,” said Chairman Bill Thorn in addressing the gathered officials at Monday’s public hearing. “Some of those cuts were pretty draconian, and some I personally wouldn’t agree with.”

Thorn suggested that commissioners consider utilizing $500,000 in reserve funds to offset the deficit. With this sum, the board could restore $220,000 worth of the $822,000 in proposed cuts.

“The only choice we’ve got is to the extent that we impact our reserves,” Thorn said of evening out the budget.

Board members then proceeded to analyze line by line the cuts suggested by each department, deciding which ones they will likely accept and which they will probably deem unnecessarily harsh. The difficulty of such a process was obvious, as each commissioner struggled to weigh fiscal concerns with potential consequences to the public of services and efficiency lost.

“There are some in there that cut way deeper than I’m comfortable doing,” said Thorn.

In particular, the board was unwilling to approve the full $282,000 in cuts presented by the sheriff’s department, saying that such a drastic cut-back would prove unwise under present national and international circumstances.

“I think people like to see deputies on the road,” said Commissioner Mike Shelton. “This is the world’s worst time to be cutting deputies.”

“I’m not willing to make that cut,” Thorn added.

The amount initially offered by the sheriff to hit his 6 percent cut mandate would equal a loss of 5 deputies. In the end, the commissioners penciled in a cut of $60,000, or approximately the cost of one deputy, though final decisions on this, and all matters, is pending full approval of the budget.

Hawley said that even the loss of one deputy would prove problematic.

“Losing a position is going to be very difficult and demoralizing for a lot of our staff members,” he said, adding that previously he had asked for a quarter of a million dollar increase in his budget.

“I’m actually facing an over $300,000 cut,” Hawley said, adding that he currently has no funding source to pay for his detectives.

Despite these setbacks, he said that he is even more concerned about budget cuts in future years.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “The $60,000 is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Nevertheless, Hawley said that he is doing his best to carry on.

“My job is to cope with emergencies, and I’ll do it,” he said. “I don’t want to panic the public. Our primary duty is to answer those 911 calls.”

He added, however, that “at some point along the line, we’ll get stretched so far that something’s going to break.”

At one point during the board meeting, Prosecutor Greg Banks objected to the proportions of the various cuts, arguing that not all departments complied with the six percent edict. Banks’ suggested cut of $56,114, as proposed in a memo dated Dec. 7, would amount to the loss of one criminal deputy prosecutor.

“If you need to cut it, okay, but it feels a bit unfair,” Banks said to the board.

Thorn countered this by saying he didn’t want departments to get into adversarial relationships over the specifics of the cuts, and that such considerations would create an atmosphere of in-fighting and resentment. He added that he has been impressed with the recent spirit of cooperation among the departments, adding that he wants such involvement to continue in order to come up with a viable working solution to balancing a difficult budget.

The board will continue its budget negotiations at an open public hearing on Monday, Dec. 17, at 1:30 p.m. in the County Annex in Coupeville.

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