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Island County budget cuts: Public reacts, county delays

South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose points an imaginary gun at Island County commissioners during a showdown over budget cuts Monday morning. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose points an imaginary gun at Island County commissioners during a showdown over budget cuts Monday morning.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

The Island County commissioners put off making any decisions on $630,000 in budget cuts for a week after listening to comments from about half of the 70 people who crowded into a meeting Monday morning.

Following two hours of speeches, Budget Director Elaine Marlow requested that the commissioners table the issue until Monday, Dec. 14 because of unresolved labor negotiations. The commissioners agreed.

It’s unclear whether the verbal showdown will make any difference in the final budget. In brief comments, the commissioners, all Democrats, defended their positions and thanked the audience for participating.

“When 57.5 percent of the current expense fund goes to law and justice, that is our priority,” Commissioner Angie Homola said.

Last week, the chairman of the Island County Republican Party issued a “call to action” urging residents to attend the meeting and protest the budget cuts in the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices. It was apparently successful, as more than half of the folks who spoke urged — or in some cases, demanded — that the three Democratic commissioners preserve law-and-justice funding.

“I implore you to find a different way to make budget cuts...” said Sandi Peterson, state committeewoman for the county Republican party. “We cannot afford to fund goodies right now.”

“Government’s priority at all levels should be the safety and security of its citizens,” Anita Dragoo of Coupeville said.

On the other hand, a number of folks said they supported the commissioners’ decision to preserve some funding to the non-mandated programs, like WSU Extension and senior services.

“I appreciate your commitment to balancing severe budget cutting with maintaining what makes life worth living here in Island County,” said Coupeville resident Eve Parrish.

Prosecutor Greg Banks, a Democrat, was the only elected official to speak Monday. He continued to protest the proposal to cut his department by 4.5 percent, which would mean the loss of a deputy prosecutor.

While the commissioners previously heard from a room full of Extension volunteers, Banks said he wished the board could also hear from crime victims so they could understand how important prosecutors’ jobs are.

“I’m struck by all the people who came out and really do understand what we do,” Banks said about the other speakers.

The proposed cuts would leave Banks with fewer deputy prosecutors than he had when he took office in 1999. At the same time, his office deals with 40 percent more misdemeanors and 43 percent more felonies.

A number of people involved with the Impaired Driving Impact Panel also protested the commissioners’ plan to cut $2,400 of the $3,600 the group receives from the county.

In addition, speakers sparred about tax increases. A half dozen people said they would gladly pay more in taxes to support county services. Langley resident Dean Enell said the county has a “flawed business model” and should consider adopting impact fees on residential development, which stretch county services and cost current taxpayers more.

“Every county and every city around here has impact fees,” he said.

But a handful of speakers said they couldn’t afford to pay more because of the sour economy.

The county’s 2010 current expense fund was facing a $1.2 million deficit due to declining tax and interest revenues and increasing health care costs for employees. The commissioners halved the deficit by using $200,000 in reserve funds, changing to an accounting method that reimburses the general fund at a high level, and transferring an additional $100,000 in road funds to the sheriff’s office.

That left about $630,000 to cut from county departments. The cuts come after two other rounds of budget reduction in the last year. In all, the commissioners will have cut $5.2 million from the current expense budget, which will be at $21.6 million next year.

Marlow explained that 67 full-time-equivalent job will have been lost, from 2008 to 2010, in layoffs and reductions in hours. That’s 13 percent of the workforce.

County funding for WSU Extension was cut in half over the last year.

In this round of proposed reductions, a number of departments received 4 percent cuts. The prosecutor, Superior Court and public defense were cut by 4.5 percent. The sheriff faces a 5 percent reduction. The contracted animal control officers and the animal shelters run by Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation were cut by 10 percent. Senior services was cut by 12 percent.

About seven part-time and full-time employees will be laid off in the current round of cuts. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown wanted to avoid laying off any more deputies, so he plans to eliminate the current director of emergency management and a records clerk. Earlier in the year, Brown eliminated three deputies.

In addition to a balanced budget, the commissioners also have to adopt next year’s current expense, county road and conservations futures levies.

The commissioners are considering increasing the current expense levy by 1 percent and using $67,000 in banked capacity. That’s a levy increase that past commissioners didn’t adopt, but they banked so it could be used in a financial emergency.

They are also looking at increasing the road levy by 1 percent and the $270,000 banked capacity.

So far, the commissioners are divided on whether to reduce the conservation future levy or increase it by 1 percent, which would require a finding of substantial need.

The commissioners must adopt the budget and the levy ordinances by the end of the year.

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