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Axe to fall June 1 in Island County

An inevitable round of layoffs in Island County government will likely be effective June 1.

County commissioners discussed the budget, which is $2 million in the red, during a meeting Monday afternoon and set some dates for important budget-balancing milestones. Yet beyond that, they offered few clues as to where they are likely to cut.

The commissioners lamented the difficulty in deciding where to trim the bare-bones, $24 million general fund budget. They already cut 31 positions last December to help fill the first $2 million hole.

“It’s become painfully obvious that there are very few discretionary services we provide,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said, “and the ones we do are there because the citizens overwhelmingly want them. That doesn’t leave us with much to cut.”

The commissioners gave themselves a deadline of April 15 to come up with preliminary decisions on budget cuts. The “firm decisions” will be finalized April 20. The cuts will probably be implemented June 1.

The commissioners have been discussing their ideas about budget cutting with Budget Director Elaine Marlow, who will help compile their ideas. Commissioner Angie Homola said she spent Saturday going over the budget with Marlow, but she could only come up with $1.2 million in cuts by roughly applying a 10 percent reduction across all the departments.

But even a 10 percent cut could be devastating to the departments. The sheriff, for example, would have to trim another eight positions after cutting three people last month.

According to Marlow, county officials have already pruned about $350,000 from this year’s budget. Sheriff Mark Brown cut the three positions, the commissioners chose to forego their travel allowances, the district court didn’t fill two vacancies, and the auditor eliminated a temporary accountant. A vacant deputy prosecutor position wasn’t included in the $350,000, Marlow said, because that cut hasn’t been finalized.

When it comes to priorities, Homola and Price Johnson said they wanted to preserve more than just the mandated, basic services of county government. Sheriff Brown and Undersheriff Kelly Mauck attended the meeting and repeated their argument that public safety and health should be the top priorities when it comes to funding.

“I’m going to advocate that we try to hold our ground where we are,” Brown said, explaining that he doesn’t want to lose any more people.

Price Johnson worried about the expense of shutting down certain non-mandated programs, like parks, and then having to rebuild them in the future.

“It might cost taxpayers more in the long run,” she said, suggesting that a skeleton crew of workers could keep the parks open with minimal upkeep.

Homola also said she was interested in preserving more than just the “backbone of Island County.” She talked about the importance of clean water, open space and land-use policy.

“My quality of life is as important to me as whether I feel safe in my home,” she said.

The commissioners will continue their budget discussion during a four-hour retreat beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the commissioners’ hearing room.

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