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County hits 2003 budget talks early

With a wary eye cast toward dwindling resources, Island County officials took aim at next year’s budget Monday. As they did it, the only thing they knew for sure was that 2002 looks like a cakewalk by comparison.

Specifically, the Board of Island County Commissioners began a series of early budget workshops this week to address the question of what a cash-strapped county government will look like in the years ahead.

In an inaugural two-hour meeting that was long on ideas and questions but short on fiscal remedies, the board scheduled a string of public meetings during which individual department heads will look deeply into how they do business, with a mind to the potential overhaul of Island County government.

The purpose, said commissioner and board chairman Mike Shelton, was to “discuss the parameters of what it is we hope to achieve.” He said the commissioners decided to start planning the 2003 budget early because the normal budgeting period — which starts in the fall — was “not adequate” under current circumstances.

“I don’t think there’s a $2 million dollar panacea out there,” Shelton said.

Beyond the bottom line of balancing a 2003 budget with a shortfall perhaps double that of last year, few things appeared certain. The overall tone of the meeting was both ambivalent and ambitious, a reflection of the choices confronting a government whose cuts could impact its ability to serve the public.

“Maybe we need to look at eliminating programs rather than spreading money thin,” Shelton said.

With the compounding effects on Island County government’s revenue stream of tax-limiting initiatives such as 747, coupled with poor sales tax returns and and the pinch of state and national recession, Shelton predicted 2003 budget cuts of 11 percent beyond this year’s balancing act, which forced the board to eat up over half the county’s $1.2 million reserve fund.

Shelton said with those reserves largely used up, next year’s cuts will most likely come in the form of either personnel or program cuts, or a combination of both.

“I don’t know how you take $2 million out of an $18 million budget and not have services go south on you,” Shelton said

Shelton suggested using “zero-based budgeting” rather than working from the previous year’s budget, which is the common if unofficial practice. Some officials at the meeting objected to Shelton’s approach. Sheriff Mike Hawley said he simply didn’t have the time to “count paperclips.”

“Not only is the money shrinking, but the demands are growing on us too,” Hawley said.

Much of the discussion during the hearing revolved around how the board should go about analysing the fiscal and structural components of individual departments as a preparation for proposing cuts. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks argued that the whole of Island County government needs to come under close scrutiny, in order to determine how to streamline services and where, how and to what extent cutbacks should be enacted in each department.

Banks suggested the early budget meetings become an “information gathering stage.” He envisioned commissioners coming in at the end of these discussions to decide how best to make a go of across-the-board cuts.

Commissioner Bill Thorn said he would appreciate a better look at the problem.

“It’s difficult to back away from that and see the forest for the trees,” he said.

Thorn said he believes officials working within their respective departments know better how things run than any outside observer.

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