County tries to balance budget

It doesn't add up, but the first draft of Island County's budget is more about motivating cuts in expenses than it is about being a finished document.

The Island County Board of Commissioners brought an unbalanced budget to the table at a public hearing in Coupeville Monday as they searched for drastic ways to make up for a $991,000 projected shortfall in an $18.1 million expense budget for 2002.

After more than 90 minutes of discussion, the commissioners handed the budget cutting scalpel over to the county's department heads. Commissioner Bill Thorn told the department heads they must find a way to cut 6 percent from their respective budgets no later than Friday, or the board would do it for them.

The tone of the meeting was bleak, as commissioners batted around various ways of balancing a budget that has been shrunk by plummeting interest rates, weak sales tax revenues, and the passage of Initiative 747. A recent state Dept. of Revenue report on the effects of I-747 put funding losses to Island County government next year at about $590,000, and approximately $4.5 million by 2007.

"What we need to address is are we going to cut programs and try and limp by," said Commissioner Mac McDowell, who proposed the board weight the cost-benefits of either shortening county opertaing hours or making across-the-board cuts in programs and personnel.

Commissioner Mike Shelton warned that despite the potential harshness of the cuts enacted for 2002, the measures taken to balance the budget for 2003 will likely be much worse.

"We need to make some hard decisions," said Shelton. "The cuts over the next two years are going to be beyond the fat, beyond the meat, and we're going to be cutting down to the bone."

Shelton said that while he first supported using $700,000 of the county's existing $1.2 million in reserves to help true the budget, he is no longer sure about the wisdom of such a move, given future shortfalls.

Commissioner Bill Thorn concurred.

"I'm nervous and reticent to take a full $700,000 of reserves when we have only $1.2 million to work with," he said.

Doing some quick math, Shelton proposed using $350,000 of the reserves, and then enacting 4-percent cuts through each county department. This amount was then upped to 4.5 percent, then 5 percent, until commissioners finally settled on 6-percent cuts.

"We better adjourn this meeting now," said Shelton, bringing a rare moment of levity to the proceedings.

Department of Health Director Tim McDonald said he welcome dthe opportunity to come up with his own cuts for the health department, rather than suffer with shortened operating hours or some other brand of across-the-board whittling.

A major concerned aired by the board was the seemingly unavoidable loss of entire programs, such as senior homecare or various health department services, despite the fact that many of those programs may be mandated by state law.

"We cannot sustain the mandates when the money doesn't support them," said Thorn.

In summing up the proceedings, Thorn touched upon the complex and difficult interaction of recent national events, not least of all the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"We've had a good run for 10 years," he said. "We've had a complete paradigm shift here. This is a new world."

Thorn said that the final budget most likely will not be adopted until the deadline of Dec. 24, which he called "down to the wire."

The commissioners will continue their budget deliberations at an open public hearing at 1:30 p.m. on Monday at the Island County Annex in Coupeville.

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