County starts budget talks early

With a wary eye cast toward a future of ever-dwindling resources, Island County elected officials are taking pre-emptive aim at next year’s budget, and the only thing they know for sure is impending cut-backs could make 2002 look like a cake walk.

Specifically, the Board of Island County Commissioners initiated on Monday a series of early budget workshops addressing the broad and somewhat vague question of what a cash-strapped county government will look like in the years ahead.

In an inaugural two-hour meeting that was long on ideas and questions but as yet short on fiscal remedies — and where frustration was often apparent — the board ended things by scheduling a string of public meetings during which individual department heads will look deeply into how they do business, with a mind to the potential overhaul or restructuring of Island County government.

As commissioner and board chair Mike Shelton put it, the purpose here was to “discuss the parameters of what it is we hope to achieve,” adding that the normal time-frame for balancing the budget was “not adequate” under current circumstances.

“I don’t think there’s a $2 million dollar panacea out there,” Shelton said.

Beyond the bottom line of balancing a 2003 budget with a shortfall perhaps doubling that of last year, few things appeared certain. The overall tone of the meeting was both ambivalent and ambitious, a reflection of the difficult choices confronting a government whose draconian cuts could have far reaching impact on its ability to serve the public.

“Maybe we need to look at eliminating programs rather than spreading money thin,” Shelton said.

With the compounding effects of tax-limiting initiatives such a I-747 on Island County government’s revenue stream – coupled with poor sales tax returns and the pinch of state and national recession – Shelton predicted 2003 budget cuts of 11 percent above this year’s balancing act, which forced the board to eat up over half the county’s $1.2 million reserve fund to true a preliminary budget more than $1 million in the hole.

Shelton said that with those reserves largely used up, next year’s cuts will most likely come in the form of either personnel or program eliminations, or a combination of both.

“I don’t know how you take $2 million out of an $18 million budget and not have services go south on you,” Shelton said at one point. “We can only deliver a government based upon the amount of money we have to spend.”

Zero-based budgeting?

One method of going about budgeting for next year, suggested by Shelton, was that Island County departments utilize “zero-based budgeting” rather than working from the previous year’s budget, which is the common if unofficial practice.

Some officials objected to Shelton’s suggested approach. County Sheriff Mike Hawley said he simply didn’t have the time to “count paperclips” in a line-by-line accounting of his budget.

“Not only is the money shrinking, but the demands are growing on us too,” Hawley said, adding that his department is already stretched thin and that the 2003 budget will hit even harder.

Much of the discussion during the hearings revolved on the question of exactly how the board should go about analyzing the fiscal and structural components of each individual department as a preparation for proposing cuts. More specifically, it was debated whether such an accounting should take place from within each department, enacted by department heads, or from without, at the behest of commissioners laying out what it is they want, or how much to cut, from each department.

Prosecutor Greg Banks argued that the whole of Island County government needs to come under close scrutiny, in order to best comprehend how to streamline services and, more importantly, where, how and to what extent cutbacks should be enacted in each department.

In this regard, Banks suggested that early budget meetings become an “information gathering stage” in order that a broad picture of county government could emerge. Banks envisioned commissioners coming in at the end of these discussions to decide how best to make a go of across-the-board cuts.

“It’s difficult to back away from that and see the forest for the trees,” said Commissioner Bill Thorn. He added that officials working within their respective departments know better than any outside observer how things run.

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