Sound Off: Who gets room on the budgetary rescue boat?

By John Dean

County commissioner

The current economy, indeed, calls for innovation and thinking outside the box in Island County.

And, of course, at the clear direction of voters, we must make do with less, something Island County has been doing for over two years.

And, yes, in theory, highest priority services are funded first. However, once you go through that process a couple a times, as Island County has done, just about everything that remains are equally-high priorities.

Pretend, for example, you are on a sinking ship and you must decide who has priority to climb aboard a rescue boat. Perhaps you say, like in the movies, women and children first. Then the rescue boat sinks and you must decide who has priority to use the life boats: your family or others? They are all still priorities, are they not? If you could save them all, should you not do so, maybe thinking outside the boat and ask the adults to hold on to the sides? Or would you hold to a rigid rule, saving only the top priorities?

Sometimes, when everything is, indeed, a priority, thinking outside the box means looking beyond a sequential order of priorities which might lead one to, say, throw his wife overboard to save his baby – or maybe the baby should go and wife stay?

Keeping islanders safe, prosecuting crimes, keeping a jail open, providing public defense attorneys as required, keeping district and Superior Courts open, running elections, protecting public funds and fiscal accountability, assessing property, processing building permits, keeping a human resources office open, keeping courthouse computers up and running, providing medical insurance to employees, providing round-the-clock coroner services, and responding to citizen complaints cannot all be accomplished without more than a select few taking a share in the next debilitating round of cuts. By only funding the top priorities, say, sheriff deputies, prosecutors, and a few others, would mean dropping other key priorities. Can we do without a coroner? Close the probation department? Cancel elections?

Making do with less means doing less with less, but, when it comes to county services, I don’t think voters intended to do totally without some of the “lesser” services. Sure, 4-H for kids and Master Gardener programs can go away, saving about $40,000. But there is still is just under $2 million left to cut.

People sometimes cite new initiatives in city and state governments and suggest Island County should follow them. They are all good ideas. But it’s not always that simple. The smaller county governments in Washington State, by law, are set up very differently than city, state and charter county governments. For example, the Board of Island County Commissioners only sets the level of funding for other elected officials, who, in turn, each determine what their priorities are for spending. County commissioners do set priorities and oversee some departments such as planning, health and maintenance, and this can help. In Island County, if a program isn’t performing or mandated by the state, it has, or is, going away.

Performance-driven budgeting, adopted by some cities, is a wonderful tool, and if counties were given the authority to throw out what isn’t performing, Island County would likely do so during this crisis. But counties are agents of the state, mandated to provide certain core services, whether they perform or not. Prosecuting drunk drivers might provide an example. Judging from the number of repeat offenders, it could be argued that prosecuting them is a low-performing effort. Should we cut it, then? Of course not.

The Board of Island County Commissioners accepts the budget task voters have directed us to do, and we hope islanders understand that, while all academic, economic and political theories are being considered, our job is to make sure all essential and state-mandated services remain in place, even at an unacceptably-low level.

John Dean, a Camano Island resident and retired newspaper editor, represents District 3 on the Board of Island County Commissioners.

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