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County goes to reserve fund

It looks like employees aren’t at risk of losing their jobs as the county completes an early version of a balanced budget.

Island County had wrestled with more than a $400,000 shortfall this year. To make up this gap, the commissioners have decided to dip into a $1.2 million reserve.

“As a budget director, I’ve never been happy to dip into the fund reserve, but, in this case, it’s money well spent,” said Elaine Marlow, Island County budget director.

The balanced budget will maintain current staff and service levels, and there will be some money to add several new employees next year.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks is going to get back an attorney position that was a victim of cutbacks in 2002 when the county laid off 13 people to overcome a $770,000 shortfall.

Banks’ office has been stretched thin this year because felony cases as sex crimes, embezzlement and identity theft have skyrocketed.

The new attorney was only part of the prosecutor’s office request, but the commissioners denied a pay upgrade to its legal assistants.

With the new position comes the understanding that the prosecutor’s office will provide legal assistance when the county updates its comprehensive plan — a process that is set to begin in 2005, said Commissioner Mac McDowell during a budget workshop Monday morning.

He added the prosecutor’s office provided similar advice about the comp plan in the past.

In addition to the new attorney, the commissioners provided a new programmer for central services who will be hired to help update the county’s computer systems. The commissioners approved that request last September.

McDowell said the fund balance was enough to allow the reinstatement of the attorney.

“We felt there was enough money in the fund balance to not make any cuts and maintain levels of service,” McDowell said.

He said that the fund balance came in higher than expected this year which encouraged the county to add the two employees.

While the Prosecutor’s Office asked for an additional position, the Sheriff’s Office did not.

“We recognize that the county has serious fiscal concerns,” said Jan Smith spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office. She said they plan to make due with current resources.

Smith added that one Sheriff’s deputy was cut in 2002 and hasn’t been restored.

County officials attributed the budgetary shortfall this year to skyrocketing health insurance costs and a quality of life adjustment given to union employees.

Voter-approved initiatives such as limits on property tax increases and a weak economy were part of the reasons for the cutbacks in 2002.

McDowell said that tight budgets will continue as the county looks to keep its expenses in line with its revenues.

He said previously that revenue-increasing measures such as raising fees or going to the voters to raise property taxes won’t be supported by residents.

He did highlight a ray of hope though. He pointed out that the national economy showed growth recently and, if that continues, it could spell higher sales tax collections at the county level.

The county currently receives approximately 20 percent of its revenue from sales tax.

The commissioners are expected to set a Dec. 1 public hearing for the budget. It must be balanced and approved by the end of the year.

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