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Island County starts new budget struggle

The seven members of the Citizen Financial Review Committee made small tweaks to the Island County budget director’s five-year budget projection, but the conclusion is the same. The county’s revenues will not be sufficient to cover the current levels of service.

With this information in hand, the commissioners are kick-starting the budget process on Monday with meeting for elected officials and department heads and another for worried employees. The hot topic will inevitably be the projected $1 million budget shortfall for 2011.

The county commissioners created the committee of citizens, all with backgrounds in finance or government, to evaluate the assumption that underlie Budget Director Elaine Marlow’s dismal budget projections. She predicted a modest growth in revenues that won’t keep up with expenditures, even with a hiring freeze and no cost-of-living raises.

Former Commissioner Bill Thorn, a Democrat and Camano Island resident, served as chairman of the citizen committee. He said the creation of the committee was a good idea and was very successful.

“It was a great group and we worked very well together,” he said. “It went so well we felt we should do it again in six months.”

At a meeting Wednesday with commissioners, Marlow handed out the minutes of the four meetings of the citizen committee, which will serve as their report. The minutes show that the group was largely confident in the county’s projections. Their individual projections for revenues, from sales tax to new construction, were within one or two percentage points of Marlow’s.

The members of the committee, appointed by the commissioners, were former Republican Island County Commissioner Dwayne Colby, former Langley Mayor Neil Colburn, Port of Coupeville Commissioner Ed Van Patten, bank vice president Jim Bird, retired corporate financial officer Vicky Brown, King County property tax supervisor Chris Richards, and Thorn.

The findings mean the county’s budget problems will probably continue. County officials have dealt with $5.2 million in shortfalls of the current expense fund over the last 18 months; the budget for 2010 is $21 million. The commissioners cut 55 positions, clipped staff hours, instituted furloughs and switched many employees to a less expensive medical plan.

Marlow predicts a $1 million shortfall for 2011. As a result, the commissioners are starting their budget process on Monday. Marlow will give a presentation at 2 p.m. in the commissioners’ room, followed by a meeting with employees at 4:30 p.m.

Along with the numbers, Marlow said she will present options, which are slim. There’s cutting costs or raising taxes by asking voters to approve a property tax levy lift or a sales tax increase for criminal justice.

“It’s a challenge,” she said.

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