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30 Island County employees could be axed

Some Island County department heads were surprised, even outraged, to discover that next year’s budget projection is in the red by $2 million and that 30 jobs cuts have been proposed by county commissioners.

“It’s looking pretty challenging for Island County,” Island County Commissioner John Dean said. “It’s less than surrounding counties, but we’re a little smaller, so it’s pretty significant for us.”

Two prominent law-and-justice figures feel that they and the citizens were left in the dark when the “pretty significant” decisions about the budget were made. Prosecutor Greg Banks pointed out that commissioners apparently decided where cuts will be made without any input from the public or other elected officials. Open government laws require decisions to be made in public.

“Given the magnitude of the decisions that were made, I would have expected significant public discussion,” Banks said. Sheriff Mark Brown has similar concerns.

The budget decline is due to the sour economy. Sales tax and interest on investments will be significantly lower next year, necessitating the nearly 10 percent cut in the general fund budget.

Last Friday, Dean went around to department heads — elected and appointed officials — to let them know about the budget problem and the proposed solutions. Monday, the department heads and the commissioners met in a budget workshop to discuss specifics.

While 30 positions will need to be trimmed, about eight will come from attrition. The rest of the positions will be layoffs, though department heads will decide exactly who will get the ax.

With the holiday season fast approaching, Dean said the commissioners decided to use some of the county’s fund balance — the amount left over each year — to keep those facing layoff on the job until Feb. 28.

“We didn’t feel good about sending them out the door with a ‘merry Christmas’ and a pink slip,” he said.

The final budget is scheduled to be adopted Dec. 1 following the first and only public hearing. Newly-elected Commissioner Helen Price Johnson will be on vacation and may take part via teleconferencing, according to Dean. She takes office after the election is certified since current Commissioner Phil Bakke was appointed to the position.

Prosecutor Banks and Sheriff Brown are not pleased with the commissioners’ budgeting process.

“I was shocked by how large the deficit is and the suddenness of the process. I would have liked to have known earlier,” Brown said. He asked for two new deputies during earlier budget hearings, but then found out that the commissioners want him to lay off two deputies. Ironically, he hired two new deputies Monday — one to replace a deputy who left and one to fill a new position authorized last year.

Banks is upset that only the sheriff’s office and his office were targeted for staff cuts among all the law-and-justice agencies without any consideration for the impact on the level of service. He was completely caught off guard by the budget projection.

“How can it be that deciding how to spend $24 million of taxpayer money is done in secret? How was it kept under wraps through summer and early fall?” he said in an email message. “The citizens should be outraged.”

Commissioners Dean and Mac McDowell have different explanations. Dean said he wanted to keep the impending budget gloom on the down-low in order to prevent panic and worry. He said he was “hoping against hope” as he saw sales tax numbers each month that the economy would turn around.

McDowell said the commissioners warned department heads over and over again that sales tax income was diving. He said they were told not to ask for increases in their budgets.

“Some people just didn’t want to listen to us,” he said, adding that he did not put his budget proposal together until just before the election. He explained that the county budget director cobbled together his proposal and Dean’s proposal to create the current budget draft.

In early October, McDowell told the News-Times that early projections show a $1.2 million decrease in revenues. In addition to sales tax and interest decreases, the county’s real estate excise tax is also down by 30 percent, but that money goes to paying off bonds and not into the general fund. The county is safe, at least for now, because McDowell created a policy preventing the county from committing any more than 50 percent of the excise tax.

The departments that are hardest hit are those that rely on fees for service, which are down dramatically. The Island County Health Department needs to cut a whopping $600,000 from a $3.3 million budget. The Planning Department will likely cut eight positions.

Dean said most other departments are being asked to trim 10 percent of their budgets, which amounts to one or two positions.

The commissioners proposed that the sheriff lay off two deputies, but he’s suggested an alternative.

“I can’t afford to go backwards here,” said Brown, who’s gone on a public relations campaign in recent months to convince the public that he needs more deputies. “It’s a matter of public safety.”

So instead, Brown has proposed cutting two of the 10 new police cars — specifically Dodge Chargers — that he requested to purchase next year.

While Dean was in favor of the proposal, McDowell said it really doesn’t make sense. First of all, he said the county spends about $88,000 a year for each deputy, so delaying the purchase of two cars would not make up the shortfall by a long shot.

And he said it’s only a temporary solution unless the economy makes a dramatic comeback.

“The problem is, a year from now we will still need to lay off two deputies,” he said.

Banks was told he should cut a deputy prosecutor, but he’s also hoping to find other places in his budget to carve off instead.

In addition to layoffs, Dean said the commissioner proposed other cost-cutting measures. They are delaying purchases for the motor pool, chopping the office equipment budget in half and snipping the commissioners’ auto allowance.

“We’re really looked under every rock,” Dean said.

Dean predicts that the sizable cuts will significantly lessen the quality of service the county can offer.

“I ask everybody for their patience and understanding,” he said, “and we will get through this together.”

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