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Reserve to the rescue

After a month of difficult and often tense deliberations, Island County board of commissioners finally opted to use more than half of the county’s $1.2 million reserve fund to make up the $1 million shortfall in next year’s budget, a solution that sidestepped a number of proposed cuts deemed by some county officials as too draconian.

The series of 2002 budget resolutions were passed quickly and without much discussion at a special open hearing on the morning of Christmas eve.

The total amount of reserves utilized to balance the budget was $737,000, a doubling of the previously suggested amount of $350,000.

“It’s a very big chunk out of $1.2 million,” said Commissioner Bill Thorn, who at an earlier meeting called the solution of using over half the county’s reserves a “crummy” one, though also the most reasonable choice under present circumstances.

Commissioner Mac McDowell said in an interview Thursday that one of the main reasons for the difficulties in balancing the budget was plummeting interest rates. Last year, the county garnered about $1.2 million in interest income; this year, total interest income is projected at around $500,000.

“That’s why we had such a difficult time this year,” McDowell said.

Add this to the recent passage of I-747 limiting property tax increases to 1 percent annually, coupled with a sluggish state and national economy and poor sales tax revenues following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and one can see why the board has scrambled for ways to make up the approximately $1.1 million budget shortfall in the 2002 budget.

Commissioners, in contemplating current cuts, have repeatedly expressed concern over an even bigger budget crunch in the years to come, as revenue cuts from I-747 compound and economic recovery is sluggish.

McDowell pointed out that counties around the state have been warned to brace for the loss of the so-called Initiative 695 backfill fund, which the legislature first enacted to make up for revenue losses due to limits in the motor vehicle excise tax. The state budget recently proposed by Governor Gary Locke, which is up for adoption at the beginning of the fiscal year in July 2002, does away with this fund.

“I keep reminding people that even though the people voted for that, it was the legislature that made the cut,” McDowell said of the tax-limiting measure.

Despite spending jitters brought on by such dour forecasts, the board decided to dip into reserves rather than utilize their banked levy capacity, which would have allowed them to increase base property tax rates beyond 1 percent.

Banked levy capacity represents a reserved percentage increase from previous years, when commissioners chose not to raised taxes to the maximum allowable limit.

All three commissioners, in citing their reasons for not utilizing the banked levy, said that they did not want to run counter to the wishes of voters, a reference to such recently passed tax-limiting initiatives as I-695 and I-747.

As mandated by the recently passed I-747, commissioners did choose to raise property taxes to the legal limit of 1 percent, a fact that was noted on record by commissioners McDowell and Mike Shelton.

While the board did not enact many of the cuts that had been discussed during recent meetings, they did slash the budgets of a number of departments, including criminal justice, as well as reductions in the budgets of the clerk, the treasurer and general administration.

In all, the board hacked about $373,000 in expenditures for 2002. Many of the cuts amounted to the board choosing not to fill currently vacant positions in various county departments.

Most notable, perhaps, was the fact that the board in the end opted not to eliminate a deputy prosecutor position from the Prosecutor’s Office, as had been previously proposed. Over the course of budget hearings in December, Prosecutor Greg Banks — who initially offered up the prosecutor’s position to meet the board’s request of 6 percent cuts across the board — had been the most vocal opponent of gutting personnel in any area of law and justice.

Neither did the board elect to cut a deputy position from the Sheriff’s Office as was earlier suggested, said McDowell.

As for the board’s decision to take such a big chomp out of the reserves, McDowell said, basically, that’s what it’s there for.

“We created it for a reason,” he said. “I would say that any time you create a reserve, you’ve collected more money than you spent. We’re using the public’s dollars to not cut services as much as we might.”

McDowell added, however, that future budget cuts might be more drastic, and that he wants the voters to realize that the board might have to “cut something that they may have used before.”

McDowell said that, as far as this year’s budget is concerned, he’s heard from some constituents that “services couldn’t expand as much as some people might have wanted.”

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