Take a serious look at mandates | Editorial

Island County’s Juvenile Detention Center is serving far fewer young offenders than anticipated and is costing more than expected, requiring dipping into an already-depleted general fund by $400,000 to keep it operating each year. A special sales tax approved by voters was  insufficient to meet expenses.

At times there are 10 full-time employees overseeing little more than half a dozen inmates, not to mention on-call staff for special situations.

This may sound like a case of local government mismanagement, but in fact it’s another case of a state mandate gone awry. The state Legislature mandated that all counties with more than 50,000 residents have their own juvenile detention facility, so eventually, Island County complied.

What to do with a handful of juvenile offenders is a complex subject. At least in Island County they are housed locally, well educated by the Coupeville School District, and are easily accessible to their families and local counselors. It’s worth spending some money to get them on the straight-and-narrow before their lives are ruined and their long-term cost to society in terms of crime and prison soars. But in hard times, what Island County is paying now is obviously beyond the pale.

Local officials have been howling about state mandates for years. Several years ago the Whidbey Island school districts actually compiled a list of 10 state mandates that do little but cost money, such as mandatory reporting and training, paid for by local taxpayers. Since then, the mandates no doubt have increased.

Oak Harbor’s City Council recently adopted restrictive new stormwater runoff regulations that will be very costly to enforce, due to a state mandate. And Island County implemented an expensive new septic inspection program, again due to a state mandate.

State mandates aren’t necessarily bad; they’re always based on good intentions. But perhaps we don’t need all these mandates in a new economy with lower tax revenues, or perhaps some of the strings attached to those mandates could be cut to make them easier and cheaper to implement.

The state has its own dire budget problems, so perhaps legislators now have some sympathy for local officials who are trying to obey all these mandates.

With the 2012 legislative session looming, it’s time to seriously study mandates, their effect on small communities, and make some adjustments. Some could be eliminated while others could be made less restrictive so local officials can be more creative and frugal in achieving them.

The Legislature should make this issue a high priority. If we could, we’d mandate it.



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