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County will add to courthouse staff

Commissioners reverse course on banked levy increase in 2008 budget

COUPEVILLE — Island County will beef up its staffing in the courthouse next year if county commissioners follow through on changes to next year’s spending plan.

Though work on the 2008 budget is not complete, county commissioners have approved adding more workers in multiple county departments.

Most of the new employees will work on law-and-justice issues.

In the prosecuting attorney’s office, a new deputy prosecutor will be hired to handle misdemeanors.

In district court, the county will add a new full-time deputy clerk and bump up from part-time to full-time positions for a probation officer and a probation secretary.

A part-time coordinator’s position in juvenile court services was also increased to full-time.

During Monday’s meeting, however, commissioners decided against taking a 2.61 percent increase in the property tax levy for roads. Commissioners Mac McDowell and John Dean agreed instead to 1 percent increases in the county’s three property tax levies.

McDowell said the move to reduce the proposed tax levy was unrelated to the fight over Initiative 747.

The tax-chopping initiative set a 1 percent cap on the annual increase to tax levies when it was approved by voters in 2001, but I-747 was recently declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Worried that some governments would seek levy increases above

1 percent, the state Legislature met in a special one-day session to restore the cap last week.

McDowell said the county has had “banked,” or unused, levy capacity for eight or nine years that it hadn’t tapped.

This year, commissioners had been considering a 2.61 percent increase in the property tax levy for roads for 2008. Going above a 1 percent increase would have netted the county another $110,482.

“We’ve waited all these years, we might as well wait another year,” McDowell said.

“There’s no dire emergency that we need that money,” he said.

Dean and McDowell both asked for a rewrite of the ordinance for the road levy, knocking it back down to a 1 percent increase. A 1 percent increase is expected to bring in an extra $68,439 for county road repairs and maintenance in 2008.

A public hearing on the tax levy increase is set for 9:55 a.m. Dec. 10. Commissioners will also hear from the public on two other tax increases.

Island County will have a total budget of $73.8 million next year, up from this year’s adopted budget of roughly $69 million.

Commissioner Phil Bakke said earlier that most of the new positions in Island County’s new budget are in the law-and-justice realm.

“I think all of us, and certainly I agree, law-and-justice issues were major,” Bakke said, adding that the county had a limited amount of money it could add to programs after adjustments were made for higher healthcare costs, insurance premiums, cost-of-living adjustments and other fixed charges.

New requests from county departments totaled $1.4 million, but the commissioners only had approximately $350,000 or so in discretionary funds, he said.

Adding another deputy prosecutor to cover district court cases in 2008 was a top priority for Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks. The county last added a deputy prosecutor in 2001, for the prosecutor’s Civil Division.

District court covers misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes and make up the county’s biggest number of court cases. Banks had earlier warned commissioners that the district court caseload could total 1,700 cases this year and take a a toll on his department.

Commissioners said they will approve funding for one new sheriff’s deputy position.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown had asked for money next year for three new full-time deputies so an additional detective could be added to both Camano and Whidbey islands.

The sheriff had hoped to continue to build the staff up by 13 new employees to double coverage on every shift in each precinct over the next seven years.

Brown also requested two new correction officers for the jail. Commissioners said no, but agreed to increase the budget for overtime in the jail.

Bakke acknowledged that the sheriff will not get the manpower he’s requested.

“I’m sure he’s frustrated. But when we get to the end of this, we’re out of money,” Bakke said.

But adding more deputies, Bakke said, would strain other parts of the justice system, and he said the courts and the prosecutor’s office already faces a crushing workload.

Beyond the sheriff’s budget, some requests from other departments were also not granted. Commissioners passed on hiring another parks technician, and said they would review hiring parks employees when a permanent parks superintendent is hired next year.

“The board is looking at moving parks into a different department, rather than (keeping it in) general services, and so we’ve deferred the decision on the majority of the park’s request,” Bakke said.

“I figured this was a good time to look at it,” he added. “The drum I’ve been beating up there is, just because we’ve been doing it this way doesn’t mean it’s the right way.”

The parks department may find a new home in the planning department, Bakke said. That may make sense because of the department’s role in planning for future park needs.

Bakke said the planning department is also reevaluating its staffing level.

“They’ve asked for a second critical area planner. It’s been approved, but it’s budget neutral because they are reducing another position to do it,” he said.

A permit-tracking system for the planning department is also a priority. Although money has not been set aside for it in next year’s budget, the department will prepare a “request for proposals” on the new system and it may be paid for by reserve funds, Bakke said.

“I feel the permit tracking system is a huge leap forward in transparency in government,” Bakke said. He pointed to other counties that already have such a system in place, which allows residents to go online and retrieve permit information on their own.

Other areas of the budget will see modest increases.

Commissioners have also agreed to fund the half-time equivalent of an employee in the auditor’s office to work during elections.

Commissioners also approved a 10 percent across the board increase for senior service programs. And they also said yes to $26,000 in additional funding for the WSU Extension Services.

Non-profits such as the Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation and CASA on Camano Island that have contracts with Island County will get a 5 percent increase in funding.

The Island County Fairgrounds will get an additional $15,000 for repairs in 2008, just as in 2007, for a total of $30,000. Commissioners said they would permanently increase the annual amount to $30,000.

Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve will receive a 10 percent increase in its budget.

When the budget is officially adopted later this month, county commissioners are also expected to approve a 1 percent increase for the property tax levy that pays for the county’s current expense levy, which pays for general government services such as sheriff patrols, courts, parks and planning. Commissioners are also considering a 1 percent increase in the county’s Conservation Futures levy, which pays for preserving open space and the scenic beauty of Island County.

A 1 percent increase in the current expense levy will bring in an additional $64,600 to Island County.

A 1 percent increase in the Conservation Futures levy will equal $5,993 in new funding.

Commissioners kicked off the review of next year’s spending plan with workshops in September. It was the first time for Bakke, the former head of the planning department, to help to shape the budget.

“I sweated bullets through this,” he said.

“I’ve been accustomed to being the person on the other side of the table who begs,” he said.

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