Layoffs worry Island County workers

The Island County Commissioners are not going to target senior employees or union members for layoffs. They aren’t going to force anyone to retire early.

Commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean, as well as Budget Director Elaine Marlow, waylaid rumors spreading around the county about an upcoming round of layoffs during a public budget workshop Wednesday night.

“I do not see an inkling of that kind of behavior,” Dean told a crowd of about 60 people, mainly concerned county employees, who attended the meeting.

The county is projecting a $2 million shortfall in the general fund next year, which commissioners proposed to fix with a round of layoffs. A total of 30 positions may be cut, though the number may be slightly less because of some creative budgeting.

Human Resource Director Larry Larson and Marlow repeated that the county will follow union agreements and handbook policies when decisions are made about who will lose their jobs.

“The guidance given to the departments was to look at the organization,” Marlow said.

In addition, questions persisted about why the commissioners didn’t tell other officials that layoffs were coming until after the election. Commissioner Mac McDowell said nobody was hiding anything and he pointed out that he told the News-Times about the budget deficit long before the election and the paper ran a story about it. He and Dean didn’t create their budget proposals until the weekend before the election.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that most elected officials and department heads didn’t realize that reserves wouldn’t cover the deficit and that layoff were coming. Most officials — including the official the budget director shares office space with — asked for more money during budget workshops.

Island County’s budget is a casualty of the crummy economy, like many counties and municipalities. Both sales tax and interest from investments have decreased significantly. At the same time, the cost of medical insurance continues to grow. It costs the county $20,000 to insure an employee and his or her family.

“That’s a big number,” Marlow said.

Folks in the crowd proposed many different ideas for cutting the budget without layoffs, but they were all shot down.

Dean said the idea of cutting everyone’s hours to 32 a week seemed like “a brilliant idea” at first. But then he realized that it has drawbacks, including the fact that deputies and other employees simply can’t do that. He said it would affect employee retention and hiring.

“We would have a very, very difficult time trying to find someone to come to work for 32 hours a week,” he said.

A member of the audience proposed the ideas of employees taking off 10 days a year unpaid, which is what King County is proposing. A woman suggested cutting health insurance to employees who can get it elsewhere. They discussed the possibility of closing county buildings one day a week, allowing employees to work four 10-hour days.

But in the end, Marlow said the draft budget, which outlines the cuts in positions, probably won’t be substantially changed before the commissioners adopt their final budget next month.

The planning department is facing the biggest loss of positions, with seven or eight cuts. But most of those will come from positions Planning Director Jeff Tate left unfilled over the last year. He said between one to three people will face actual layoffs.

The preliminary budgets shows that the sheriff’s office will lose two deputy positions. Marlow said the sheriff may be able to stave off layoffs by delaying the purchase of a couple of cop cars, though McDowell has made it clear he thinks that’s a bad idea.

The commissioners scheduled a special session at 2 p.m., Nov. 26 to review expenditure estimates with the budget director.

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