County budget deficit deepens

A new budget projection by Island County officials dramatically increases revenue shortfall this year to at least $1.8 million.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson broke the news to her fellow commissioners during a budget session Monday afternoon. She then led them through an exercise to define the values and priorities of Island County government.

“Our budget is based on what we care about, what our priorities are,” she said.

A month ago, Treasurer Linda Riffe revised her estimate of interest earnings downward by $1 million because of the sinking rates. That was after the commissioners cut 31 positions in December to help fill a $2 million budget hole. For many employees, their last day of work was last Friday.

Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the new, $1.8 million estimate for the year’s budget shortfall is based on decreased sales tax and fee revenues. Sales tax is down 12 percent and permit fees dropped 50 percent, to the year 2000 level.

Marlow warned that the projections are best guesses in a unprecedented time. “Whether the trend will continue throughout the year, I don’t think anyone knows,” she said.

Marlow said the $1.8 million projected shortfall in the $25.5 million general fund budget doesn’t include a drop in revenues coming into public health, which hasn’t been estimated yet. She said it will probably amount to “several hundred thousand below projection.”

Price Johnson, who’s taken the lead in the budget among the commissioners, laid out a general schedule for the budget process. In March, they will set priorities and develop budget targets. In April, they will reassess financial trends while state lawmakers complete their session. In May, they will adjust the budget once they know how much funding will come from the state.

During this time, the commissioners said they will be conferring with leaders of the bargaining units, elected officials and department heads.

Price Johnson introduced these draft priorities: open and responsive government; financial health and economic development; and community and environmental vitality.

The other commissioners agreed that the priorities were broad enough to cover everything they are concerned about, from fiscal responsibility to the quality of life in the county to sustainability.

Marlow said the greatest challenge she sees in the budget process is that “one size does not fit all” when dealing out cuts to the departments. Some departments — like the treasurer, assessor and auditor — may not be able to absorb any more cuts in personnel.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown attended the meeting with several others from his office. He asked if the county could simply cut out all “non-mandated” services, which would include things like the WSU Extension department and parks. He suggested that volunteers could run the programs until the economy improves.

Price Johnson, however, pointed out that cutting the non-mandated program wouldn’t be enough to balance the budget. Human Resources Director Larry Larson cautioned that volunteers can’t supplant union jobs.

In the end, the commissioners reaffirmed that all options for balancing the budget remain on the table.

“The board is certainly not leaning in one direction or another,” Commissioner John Dean said, referring to rumors circulating about where cuts will come.

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