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County departments propose budget cuts

In an attempt to right a severely unbalanced budget, Island County department heads brought a variety of proposed cuts to the table Monday.

The county budget for 2002 -- crimped by declining interest rates, poor sales tax returns and a loss of state funding following the passage of Initiative 747 -- is currently showing a shortfall in revenue of about $991,000. The county has a reserve of approximately $1.2 million it could use to soften the blow, but Island County's commissioners are reluctant to use it when the economic forecast could be even worse over the next few years.

The board will continue its budget negotiations at an open public hearing on Monday, Dec. 17, at 1:30 p.m. in the Island County Annex in Coupeville.

Last week, the commissioners asked department heads to make across-the-board budget cuts of 6 percent. The cuts, plus an infusion from the reserve, should make up for the revenue shortfall.

"I sincerely appreciate the effort that most of you made in finding ways of cutting expenses," said Commissioner Bill Thorn to the department heads at a public hearing Monday. "Some of those cuts were pretty draconian, and some I personally wouldn't agree with."

Thorn suggested the commissioners consider utilizing $500,000 in reserve funds to offset the deficit. With this sum, the board could restore $220,000 worth of the $822,000 in proposed cuts.

"The only choice we've got is to the extent that we impact our reserves," Thorn said.

The commissioners then proceeded to analyze line-by-line the cuts suggested by each department. They did not like everything they saw.

"There're some in there that cut way deeper than I'm comfortable doing," said Thorn.

In particular, the board was unwilling to approve the full $282,000 in cuts suggested by the sheriff's department, saying that such a drastic cutback would prove unwise under present national and international circumstances.

"I think people like to see deputies on the road," Commissioner Mike Shelton said. "This is the world's worst time to be cutting deputies."

"I'm not willing to make that cut," Thorn added.

The amount initially proposed by the sheriff would equal a loss of five deputies. In the end, commissioners penciled in a cut of $60,000, or approximately the cost of one deputy, though final decisions on this will come when the budget is approved on Dec. 24.

At one point in the meeting, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks objected to the proportions of the various reductions, arguing that not all departments complied with the proposed 6 percent cuts. Banks' suggested cut of $56,114, as proposed in a memo dated Dec. 7, would amount to the loss of one criminal deputy prosecutor.

"If you need to cut it, okay, but it feels a bit unfair," Banks said to the board.

Thorn countered this by saying he did not want departments to get into adversarial relationships over the specifics of the cuts, and that such considerations would create an atmosphere of infighting and resentment. He added that he has been impressed with the recent spirit of cooperation among the departments.

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