Governor’s budget alarms island officials

The budget the Island County commissioners adopted just last month may have to be revised, possibly even before the end of the year, if state lawmakers adopt $2 billion in cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The budget the Island County commissioners adopted just last month may have to be revised, possibly even before the end of the year, if state lawmakers adopt $2 billion in cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Many officials in Island County, as well as the city of Oak Harbor, are worried about the impact the governor’s “budget reduction alternatives” could have on the funds local governments received from the state.

“Cutting around the fringes is gone,” county Public Health Director Keith Higman said. “This is about cutting entire programs.”

Gov. Gregoire called a special session for legislators after the state’s economist lowered revenue projections for the 2011-13 biennium. Gregoire recently announced her preferred budget cuts, but the shape of the budget will ultimately be up to the Legislature. The special session is set to begin Nov. 28.

Island County Budget Director Elaine Marlow said she’s watching the state budget process closely. While she can’t predict what will happen, she does expect to get some bad news from Olympia, just in time for Christmas.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” she said, “but we will continue to be fiscally responsible.”

The county commissioner adopted the 2012 budget Oct. 3. It was the first time in four years that significant cuts didn’t have to be made to balance the current expense fund.

Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik was among the 115 mayors in the state who signed a letter sent to the governor last week that called Gregoire’s proposed budget cuts “intolerable.”

In the letter, the mayors focused on the governor’s  proposal under which the state would no longer share liquor taxes and profits with local governments, as well as her plan to eliminate state funding meant to help cities that have annexed large areas. The letter states the cuts are “simply unacceptable.”

In response, Gregoire said she agreed that the proposed cuts were intolerable, but that the options for budget cutting were extremely limited after round after round of massive budget reductions.

Among the dozens of proposals on the governor’s chopping block is the elimination of a public health program aimed at halting the spread of communicable diseases, reducing chronic diseases and increasing vaccinations. Island County is supposed to receive $153,000 for the program next year.

Higman said the county public health program is mandated to deal with communicable diseases whether or not the state helps pay for the program. He said his staff members are the only people in the county who have the ability or authority to investigate disease outbreaks, such as recent tuberculosis cases on Camano Island.

Higman discussed the issue with the county commissioners and encouraged them to contact state lawmakers to lobby against the reductions. In addition, he suggested that the commissioners may have to use scarce current expense dollars to make up for the deficit.

The governor also proposed major changes to health care eligibility for the poor. Higman said the consequences will be that more people end up in emergency rooms, which is the costliest way to provide medical care.

“From an economic perspective, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pass the cost along to a local hospital that is already having a hard enough time financially,” he said.

The governor also proposed cutting funding for critical access hospitals like Whidbey General.

In addition, a long list of social services programs, from Child Protection Services to chemical dependency treatment, face large cuts or elimination.

Yet Marlow said even small cuts for the state could have fairly big impacts on little Island County. The governor proposed, for example, to end the state’s contribution to county prosecutors’ salaries, which would mean the loss of more than $50,000 for the county. In 2008, the Legislature tied the prosecutor’s salary to that of superior court judges and agreed to pay half.

“I know the state is grappling with an enormous number,” she said, “but it’s going to be tough for us.”

 

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