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County goes into reserves to balance 2002 budget

After a month of number crunching, the Island County Board of Commissioners opted Monday to use more than half of the county's $1.2 million reserve to make up the $1.1 million shortfall in the county's 2002 budget.

The action sidestepped a number of proposed cuts deemed by some county officials as too draconian.

The board quickly approved a series of 2002 budget resolutions at special hearing Monday morning, giving the county a balanced budget containing operating expenses of almost $18 million. To make up a projected revenue shortfally, the commissioners grabbed $737,000 out of the reserve account, more than double the $350,000 they discussed weeks ago.

"It's a very big chunk out of $1.2 million," said Commissioner Bill Thorn, who at an earlier meeting called the solution of using over half the county's reserves "crummy." He also said it was the most reasonable choice under the circumstances.

Commissioner Mac McDowell said plummeting interest rates were one reason the budget did not balance. Last year, the county earned about $1.2 million in interest income. This year, that income is projected to be about $500,000.

"That's why we had such a difficult time this year," McDowell said Wednesday.

Making things worse was the passage in November of Initiative 747, which limits property tax increases to a maximum of 1 percent. Add to that a sluggish state and national economy and poor sales tax revenues following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The commissioners, in contemplating cuts, repeatedly expressed concern over a bigger budget crunch in the years to come, as revenue cuts from I-747 compound and the economy continues to slow.

McDowell said counties around the state have been warned by agencies such as the Washington Association of Counties to brace for the loss of the so-called Initiative 695 backfill fund, which the legislature first enacted to make up for revenue losses due to limits in the excise tax. The state budget recently proposed by Gov. Gary Locke, which is up for adoption at the beginning of the fiscal year in July, eliminates this fund.

"I keep reminding people that even though the people voted for that, it was the legislature that made the cut," McDowell said.

Despite spending jitters brought on by dour forecasts, the board decided to dip into reserves rather than use the county's banked levy capacity. Banked levy capacity allows the county to increase property tax rates beyond the 1 percent provisioned by I-747. The county may use this option only once.

All three commissioners said using this option would run counter to the wishes of voters, who passed tax-limiting initiatives I-695 and I-747.

While the commissioners did not enact many of the budget reductions that had been discussed during recent meetings, they did cut the budgets of certain departments, including criminal justice, county clerk, the treasurer's office and general administration.

In all, the board hacked about $373,000 in expenditures for 2002. Many of the cuts came when the commissioners chose not to fill vacant positions in various county departments.

Most notable, perhaps, was the fact that the board opted not to eliminate a deputy prosecutor position from the prosecutor's office, as had been previously proposed. Over the course of budget hearings in December, Chief Prosecutor Greg Banks -- who initially offered up the prosecutor's position to meet the board's request of 6 percent cuts across the board -- had been the most vocal opponent of gutting personnel in any area of law and justice.

The commissioners also sidestepped a proposal to cut a deputy's position from the Island County Sheriff's Office, McDowell said Wednesday.

Talking about the board's decision to take so much money out of the reserve account, McDowell said the reserve exists to make up for budget shortfalls.

"We created it for a reason," he said. "I would say that any time you create a reserve, you've collected more money than you spent. We're using the public's dollars to not cut services as much as we might."

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