What should county cut?

Expect more cries of pain and anguish Monday when Island County Commissioners enter their final week of deliberations over the 2002 budget.

Last Monday, commissioners received their requested 6 percent budget cut proposals from most department heads. Among the likely cuts announced were one deputy sheriff and one deputy prosecutor.

Since then, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks has launched a high-profile courthouse campaign to encourage the commissioners to look elsewhere for cuts, rather than in such “core services” as those provided by the law and justice system.

Without the deputy prosecutor, Banks said Friday, he may have to stop prosecuting some juvenile matters and lesser crimes. “People will be unhappy to find out shoplifters are not prosecuted, or get a pretty easy ride through the system,” he said.

In other cases, Banks said, certain felony crimes may have to be plea bargained down to misdemeanors. “It’s not justice, but it certainly speeds things along,” he said.

Banks is encouraging the commissioners to look at cuts in their own budget, as well as a seemingly sacrosanct line item called “miscellaneous” that helps fund such endeavors as the Economic Development Council, Island County Historical Society, Senior Services and Ebey’s Landing historical reserve. The EDC, for example, received $32,500 from Island County last year.

Banks said all those are good programs, but they’re not core services. “Shoot, I’m a Democrat,” he said, expressing sympathy for the programs that he thinks should be reduced or eliminated. “They’re all nice things — when we have the money.” He cited the WSU Cooperative Extension as another area where the county may be able to save money.

Banks said the commissioners should avoid across-the-board cuts, and instead protect essential services. “Circle the wagons around core services,” he said.

Banks said he has discussed his ideas with two commissioners, Bill Thorn and Mike Shelton. He also things they should take more time to study the county’s services rather than ordering cuts immediately.

Thorn, chairman of the board, said Friday that Banks’ “core services” idea is hard to argue against. “It’s a point of logic,” he said. “But what do you call your core services?”

Thorn said all items in the county budget, including the commissioners’ own operating expenses, are still open for cutbacks. The commissioners’ office budget as it stands is less than the 6 percent sought from other departments.

But Thorn said the 6 percent cut requested from each department was “a bit arbitrary,” and the final county budget will reflect a lesser overall cut.

The coroner’s office budget can’t be cut, for example, because it employs only two people, including elected Coroner Robert Bishop. “The only way he could cut was to cut his own salary, and he didn’t propose to do that,” Thorn said. “We don’t have to be that draconian in any one department.”

The commissioners will bring their latest budget cutting ideas to the public at a budget hearing at 1:30 Monday in the courthouse. Another hearing will be held on Christmas eve, Dec. 24. Plans are to adopt the 2002 budget that day.

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