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County prepares to cut programs and employees

Hoping to play early bird to the big worm of a 2003 budget shortfall, Island County commissioners delivered a round of preliminary budget reductions last week, then asked various department heads for feedback on the proposed cuts to personnel and certain public programs.

In many respects, the special budget hearing held Friday at the Law & Justice Facility in Coupeville, felt like deja vu all over again, with commissioners once more scrambling to overcome a nearly $1 million shortfall in current expense funds without gutting essential services or programs.

However, after draining $373,000 of the county's $1.2 million reserve fund to balance the 2002 budget, the board will be forced to cut more jobs and more funded programs this year in trying to shore up an already thin government bureaucracy.

Contributing to the board's budget woes are plummeting interest rates on county investments, as well as the loss of almost $584,000 in so-called I-695 backfill from the state, which partially replaced revenues from the largely defunct Motor Vehicle Excise tax.

Also, Commissioner Mac McDowell delivered the bad news Friday that an increase in mandated medical insurance premiums for county employees will add about $135,000 to expenditures for 2003.

None of the commissioners sought to put a smiley face on the situation.

"We're on a downhill slope," Commissioner Bill Thorn said Friday. "I don't see anything on the horizon that's going to lessen the budget severity."

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you to buck up, it's going to be OK," Chairman Mike Shelton told county employees, "because for some of you, it's not going to be OK."

Prior to Friday's meeting, the board sent county department heads a three-page worksheet detailing preliminary line-item budget cuts. Each commissioner offered a distinct vision of how to reduce expenses.

However, the board opted not to identify who suggested which cuts. Total reductions ranged from about $480,000 to just under $900,000.

Despite the anonymity, the cuts are remarkably similar in their details. And if consensus is any indication particular areas that are likely to see budget reductions, it would appear the following departments stand to lose manpower next year: assessor, auditor, clerk, district court, WSU extension services, parks, juvenile court, maintenance, prosecuting attorney, sheriff and treasurer.

Some non-mandated programs typically funded by the county are also under threat of the axe, including the Island County Historical Society ($2,500), Ebey's Landing Reserve ($10,000), various senior services (suggested 5 percent reduction in funding) and the Island County Economic Development Council ($32,500), which the board is suggesting be funded through the newly acquired Rural Counties tax revenues.

Obviously, none of the department heads present at the budget hearing Friday were especially pleased with the proposed cuts, though most acknowledged the difficulties now confronting the board as it struggles to minimize the impact of next year's shortfall.

Island County Health Director Tim McDonald said the board should consider any cuts to his department in light of future reductions in state health funding, which he predicted would be significant. Under budget scenarios proposed by the board, the Health Department stands to lose from 5 to 10 percent of its budget, which McDonald suggested could be made up partly in fee increases.

"In any of the scenarios you have presented we will have to make significant program cuts, especially when considered in conjunction with upcoming state grant cuts," he said. "Obviously, we are interested in minimizing those cuts and the impact on our community."

McDonald said, given the option, he would prefer that any cuts to public programs be handled within the health department, rather than being decided by the board. Also, he urged commissioners to let him know as soon as possible the exact figures he'd be dealing with, in order that he can warn folks early about layoffs rather than waiting until just before the holidays.

Assessor Tom Baenen said he can't abide the cuts being proposed by the board, which would cost him at the very least one full-time employee. Rather than the suggested 11 percent cut, Baenen said he can accommodate only a 3.65 percent reduction.

"I can't cut any further and function," he said.

Auditor Suzanne Sinclair presented a similar objection to a proposed cut of 1.5 full-time positions in her office, arguing that work loads have increased steadily and her staff is already functioning at a disadvantage.

"In the end, ask yourself what does the Auditor's Office do?" Sinclair said. "We provide records that support land ownership, elections that support self-governance, we pay the county's bills and the county's employees. While these may not be health or safety, they are arguably public welfare. I ask that you consider... the impact on our public service when making your final decision."

Don Meehan, financial director for WSU extension services, said cuts to his department would hit the county's 4-H program the hardest, and in general would have a "negative impact on the quality of programs we offer to the public."

The loss of 4-H enrollment would mean a serious blow to a youth program that often keeps kids out of trouble, Meehan said. He added that the cost of dealing with at-risk youth in the criminal justice system would "far exceed the savings we see now."

County Prosecutor Greg Banks saidhe was unhappy with the proposed cuts, though his department could get along by rolling back some services.

"We will continue to make every effort to put public safety first," he said.

Banks praised the board for conducting early and extensive budget hearings to deal with the crisis, though he did express concern about the process and some of the issues involved. He said he was disappointed about the failure to get the proposed I-COM .01 percent sales tax levy on the September ballot, which would have saved the county between $300,000 and $400,00 in service fees, and urged the board to try to put the issue to voters in November.

Banks also suggested the board look into a consolidation of county administrative functions. He said, for example, that King County executive Ron Sims has proposed consolidating six departments into one, and that the board should study this issue "before we shrink essential county services."

Banks questioned the continuing county support of various senior services when these are not what he deemed "essential" county services.

"I think that, in a perfect world, the public, through government, would provide some of those 'quality of life' benefits," he said. "I'm just disappointed that, in a time of crisis, the county can afford to make gifts to its favorite organizations, while cutting back on the services that it is required by law to provide."

Commissioner Thorn, while agreeing with many of Banks' points, said he disagreed with the idea of cutting back on senior service funding, adding that senior programs support a large segment of the population that routinely is ignored and underfunded.

Chairman Shelton said the board will continue to refine the figures before delivering their final budget proposals.

"At the end of the day, we only have a certain amount of money and we don't have any way to expand that," Shelton said.

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