County fears budget shortfall of as much as $1.5 million

Confronting what looks to be an ever-darkening economic horizon, Island County commissioners are scrambling for ways to batten the financial hatches without also stripping basic services residents have come to expect.

A national recession, plummeting interest rates and a potential loss of revenue in the form of Initiative 747, which seeks to limit property tax increases to 1 percent, are all factors contributing to a predicted $1 million to $1.5 million shortfall in the county’s operating budget for the coming year.

Bill Thorn, chairman of the Island County Board of Commissioners, pointed out that the county’s general fund, or operating budget, is funded by property tax revenues to the tune of 8 cents on the dollar. Hence the concern about the possible passage of I-747. Any increase beyond 1 percent would require a vote of county residents.

With additional uncertainties arising over the future status of the Initiative 695 “backfill fund” — whereby the state has paid 53 cents on the dollar to counties for funding lost to the $30 license tab fee — Thorn described the county’s revenue forecasting as “a little dicey right now.”

Come the first of the year, Thorn said the county will recommence its argument with the legislature regarding the state’s “moral commitment” to continue on with I-695 backfill funding — though, he said, such a commitment can’t be counted on, even at its current rate of funding.

Thorn added that, with sales tax revenues having gone flat, it could be a “pretty thin Christmas season,” both locally and around the country.

“The only saving grace,” Thorn said, “is that we continue to have substantial new construction in the county,” which adds property to the tax rolls.

County commissioners have been engaged in budget workshops since Sept. 10. These meetings entail reviewing project reports as well as receiving financial updates from the various county departments as preliminary to finalizing the 2002 budget. These workshops are scheduled to wrap up on Oct. 22, with reserve days set aside at the beginning of November if necessary. Monday’s workshop begins at 9:30 a.m., and may be continued in the afternoon.

Thorn said he and commissioners Mike Shelton and Mac McDowell are committed to considering all options for cutting expenses. Depending on how things pan out, some of these options might prove “more draconian than others.”

In considering the various ways of saving money, Thorn said the commissioners “don’t want to take anything off the table for discussion.” He added, however, “We’ll make every effort to find ways to economize in-house before we’d consider more drastic measures.” These might include reducing county operating hours or placing a freeze on hiring.

“We’re doing everything that we can to maintain services that people have come to expect out of the county,” said Thorn. However, he warned that saving county services could entail such “drastic” measures as an increase in the property tax.

“I’m loathe to take sheriffs off the street,” Thorn said about potential cutbacks. “We don’t want that to happen. People generally don’t want that to happen.

“At the same time, we can’t get blood out of a turnip,” he said.

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