I-747 forces reductions in services by county

In the face of daunting fiscal setbacks resulting from the passage of Initiative 747, Island County’s elected officials continue to negotiate cutbacks as they deal with a smaller budget.

The commissioners set a public hearing to adopt the 2002 budget for Dec. 3 at 1:30 p.m. in the Island County Annex in Coupeville.

According to a recent report on the consequences of I-747 released by the state, Island County will see approximately $590,000 less in state funding next year. With plummeting interest rates and a dip in sales tax revenues, county officials estimate a 2002 budget shortfall of approximately $1 million.

The question confronting Island County commissioners appears to be how – barring a special levy that approves a property tax increase of more than 1 percent — they can continue to provide those services expected by the public, such as libraries, health programs and police and emergency services.

No definite consensus was reached at a special budget session in Coupeville Tuesday. Testifying before county commissioners, county department heads debated the pros and cons of peeling the work week back to 38 hours or cutting personnel and programs not mandated by law.

Deputy county prosecutor David Jamieson read to the board a letter written by Prosecutor Greg Banks that questioned the wisdom of implementing a 38-hour work week. He called the proposal a “bad one.”

A reduction of hours, Banks wrote, “will only serve to degrade the services provided by government, generating more misguided criticism of government and spurring on additional initiatives like the one that just passed.”

Banks continued, “If the general level of the electorate’s understanding is limited to the here and now of their wallets, it is unlikely that they will ever ‘get it,’ unless there is some immediate consequences to their actions.”

He added that he would rather cut an attorney position than “deal with the effects of such a slow burn” he envisions with an across-the-board reduction of county work hours. He proposed instead that the board “float” a property tax increase by special levy, letting the voters decide which programs and services they wish to fund.

The county’s health department would take an unmanageable hit from a shortened work week, said Health Director Tim McDonald. Within his department, which is partially fee-driven, a cut in hours would slash revenue as well as expenses.

“A 38-hour work week would mean a decrease in services across the board,” said .

During his turn to speak, Island County Assessor Tom Baenen said his office is already running five months behind in preparing the latest tax calendar, He said he needs to hire another assessor.

“The public needs to become aware of the fact of just how onerous this package is,” Baenen said of I-747.

Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Jan Smith agreed the idea that the county has “fat” to cut is untrue.

Among the few department heads who said they could accommodate a shortened work week was Human Resources Director Dick Toft. With only one full time employee, Toft said, a 38-hour schedule was the only option that would work.

In his comments, Commissioner Mike Shelton said there is currently “a great amount of frustration in local government” as officials deal with a public that expects a status quo of programs and services while also voting for initiatives that take money away from those services. He said it is important for government officials to realize that with the economy slowing, voters might be asking the government to “experience the pain that citizens are experiencing.”

“People are voting their pocketbooks,” Shelton said

Even so, he said, it is important for Island County government to keep providing “the best services we can within the budgetary limitations that we have.”

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