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Board balances county budget early

The axe is falling early in Island County government, which will at least save some county employees the pain and aggravation of being laid off right before the Christmas holiday.

County department heads received early notice of impending lay-offs Monday, as the Island County Board of Commissioners put the finishing touches on what looks to be the 2003 budget. Prior to balancing the budget through a series of fairly heavy cuts, the board was confronting an approximate $773,344 shortfall in revenue.

Although the official budget won't be approved until the final board meeting in December, board chairman Mike Shelton told those assembled at a Monday budget hearing in the Law & Justice Facility that the current numbers likely won't change all that much.

"For planning purposes, what you just heard is pretty much what's going to be in place, barring any unforeseen circumstances," Shelton said.

Unlike last year, when the board tapped into $737,000 of county reserves to overcome a shortfall of nearly $1 million, this current round of budget cuts whittles away at both government personnel and public programs.

Island County government has run into budget difficulties over the last couple of years, largely due to such tax-limiting initiatives as I-747, which freezes property tax revenue collection at 1 percent annually. Combined with plummeting interest rates and a relatively weak sales tax base, commissioners have struggled to maintain essential government services with a dwindling stream of revenue.

Few county departments escaped the knife at Monday's budget hearing which, compared to previous such meetings, was a relatively subdued affair, with commissioners doing most of the talking. Shelton perhaps best summed up the solemn nature of the proceedings when he noted the board's goal in conducting early budget sessions was partly to give out the bad news early.

"This is not what we would like to do," he said. "This is what we have to do."

Under the current proposals, a number of departments will lose one full-time employee each, and a handful of others will lose half-time clerical positions.

The Island County Assessor's office will lose one full-time position, saving the county $36,000. Also losing a full-time employee will be the auditor ($38,000), district court ($30,000) and juvenile court ($42,000). The prosecutor's office will lose a deputy prosecuting attorney ($60,000), the Sheriff will lose a full-time deputy ($55,000), and one eight-month park position will be cut from general services ($23,000).

The county clerk, the public defender, the treasurer's and the maintenance department will all lose half-time positions.

Other large cuts include a general reduction of health department funding by $60,000, and a slash of $50,000 each to the county's termination contingency and the commissioner's contingency fund, which is a catch-all for unforeseeable budget needs that arise over the course of the year. The board itself took a $5,000 cut per commissioner in travel and car expenses, as well as a 5 percent reduction in contracted labor consultant funding, which amounts to a savings of $1,175.

Perhaps the most contested among the cuts were those to Senior Services of Island County, which received a 5 percent budget reduction for a loss of $10,500 in funding, and Animal Control, which was also cut 5 percent, or $8,460.

Commissioner Bill Thorn, who has advocated for retaining full funding for senior programs, opposed the motion to slash senior funding, with both Shelton and Commissioner Mac McDowell voting in favor of the cut.

"It's certainly not anything that I would choose to reduce, I recognize the importance of senior programs," Shelton said, adding, however, that under current constraints such cuts are hitting almost all departments and programs.

Thorn also argued that cutting back on animal control funding could have a deleterious effect on other county functions, such as law and justice.

"We do not have the privilege of reducing that," he said. "This is an area that touches the public, perhaps as much as the sheriff's department."

County risk manager Betty Kemp said any cut to animal control would indeed impact the sheriff's department.

Thorn opposed the motion, which passed 2 to 1. In explaining his support of the cut, Shelton said, services throughout the county are going to suffer, and animal control shouldn't be treated any differently.

"There isn't one function we do that is more important than anything else," Shelton said.

The Washington State University Cooperative Extension, which runs such programs as 4-H and the Noxious Weed Control Board, received what many argue is a devastating $40,000 budget cut. The cut eliminates a full-time clerical position from the office, and takes away funding for a WSU faculty position. Extension agent Don Meehan told the board at a previous budget hearing that such a cut would severely impact the 4-H program in particular.

Thorn was the lone board member to oppose the reduction.

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