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Island County Prosecutor isn’t just clowning about budget

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks questions Bozo the Clown, his volunteer morale officer. He brought the blow-up toy to his budget presentation before the  commissioners last week to help make his case for the retention of existing staff.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks questions Bozo the Clown, his volunteer morale officer. He brought the blow-up toy to his budget presentation before the commissioners last week to help make his case for the retention of existing staff.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

If you you’re looking for tips on how to make a lasting impression while giving a budget presentation, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks may be the man to see.

The trial lawyer/politician stole the show during the first round of budget talks between department heads and the board of commissioners last week when he called to the stand a special witness.

The mysterious figure was shepherded into the room covered in black plastic garbage bags, fueling a guess or two from the awaiting commissioners. Banks, wearing a large smile, didn’t keep them waiting for long as he soon introduced his unfunded morale officer, Bozo the Clown.

“That is our volunteer,” Banks laughed.

He explained that while Bozo’s purpose is to make people laugh, there is really nothing funny about him. The blow-up punching bag is a reflection of his office’s budget woes and a challenging new trend in case loads.

Over the past few years, hefty county budget cuts have resulted in the loss of a chief criminal deputy, two deputy prosecutors and a paralegal at the department.

Banks got some relief earlier this year when the board approved his request to make a part-time deputy prosecutor full time and reinstate a half-time receptionist and legal assistant, but positions were only funded through the end of the year and his office continues to struggle.

A big part of the problem is a changing case load. This year, the office has seen a spike in felony crimes and a marked shift from drug and property crimes to sex and violent crimes. For example, 2012 marks the unprecedented simultaneous prosecution of four first-degree murder cases.

Trying such cases takes a heavy toll on staff, he said. This spring, at about the time the sex crimes were peaking, the office was hit with its fourth murder case and morale dropped to an all-time low.

“It was very heavy,” said Banks, his voice thick with emotion. “It’s an emotional job and we needed something to lighten the atmosphere.”

Banks’ solution was to “hire” Bozo. There’s a lot of space in the office these days, so Bozo was set up in a vacant room and it was turned into an employee wellness center. While the punch toy has helped people blow-off steam, it only goes so far.

“I’d say office morale has become probably the most serious challenge for me,” Banks said.

Bozo is a cost-effective tool in keeping spirits up around the office, but Banks said he can’t afford any further staff reductions and is asking the board to fund his two temporary positions — those approved just for this year — through next year.

If approved, the two positions would add about $52,800 to his estimated expenditures, totaling $1.38 million in 2013. His approved 2012 expenditures totaled about $1.3 million.

Banks wasn’t the only one to make pitches during the ongoing budget process.

Planning and Community Development is another department that is badly in need of additional manpower, particularly in long-range planning. The problem is so severe that the current staff of two full-time positions won’t be able to complete work needed over the next few years to update several major planning programs required by the state.

Turnover has diminished some department capabilities and the management of two Growth Management Act appeals, a backlog of unfinished work and large public records requests have taken precious time away from staff to attend to other duties. Finally, fee revenues have been insufficient to meet current needs.

Director Bob Pederson is asking for a full-time, long-range planner.

Island County Clerk Debra Van Pelt also asked for increase in staff, proposing a half-time deputy clerk be hired to full-time status.

Assessor Mary Engle is requesting to continue funding a part-time clerical position to assist with a backlog of parcel segregations with resources from her budget’s contingency fund. Total expenditures for 2013 would remain the same as last year.

The Island County Coroner, Civil Service Commission, public defender and Superior and Juvenile Courts also presented their budgets, but none of them proposed any significant changes.

Budget presentations are planned to continue today, beginning at 9 a.m. in the Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville.

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