Staff cuts part of continuing county losses

When the Island County Board of Commissioners approves its 2003 budget this Monday, it will mark the second year of a downward spiral that seems to have no end.

Expected to say "yes" to an $18.3 million budget covering all county functions except road building -- another $5,751,400 budget item -- the commissioners are also waving "goodbye" to employees in almost every department. Staff cuts this year are bigger than during the 2002 budget cycle, with about a dozen full-time positions being eliminated. These layoffs, plus other cuts, will trim the budget to the point where the county will actually spend about $800,000 less in 2003 than it is budgeted to spend this year.

This is the second year in a row the commissioners have had to cut staff to help reduce county expenses.

The biggest chunk of the budget will go to the Island County Sheriff's Office and the county's jail. Together, the two departments will require $5.45 million in taxpayer money to keep the peace in Island County. That total would have been larger, but like other departments, the sheriff's office was forced to cut staff for 2003. One deputy position is being eliminated from the department.

That cutback, plus the loss of a deputy prosecutor, made Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton uncomfortable this week.

"This is not the time to be cutting in criminal justice," he said Wednesday. "We were already down to the bone and now we're cutting the bone away."

While he believes Island County will be able to provide services "relatively effectively" through next year, Shelton said any major, unpredicted expenses will be hardships. He said he does not see the situation getting any better in the future. This year, $325,000 in additional health insurance costs for employees plus an expected $125,000 cost-of-living increase will be more than double revenue gains through additional property and sales taxes.

Other staffing cuts in Coupeville include one employee in the WSU Extension office, one employee in the auditor's office, one half-time position each in the clerk and treasurer's offices, one employee in the assessor's office, one employee in the health department, summertime parks help, and two licensing employees in the Camano Island county annex. Those positions will be "privatized," Shelton said, in the same way licensing services have been contracted out to an insurance office on South Whidbey.

Expecting to lose more ground in terms of revenue in 2004, Shelton said he and the county's other two commissioners are now hoping the public will come up with a solution to the problem. At present, the commissioners are barred by voter initiative from increasing property taxes by more than 1 percent per year. In the past, they enacted annual increases of up to 6 percent.

The only way the commissioners can raise property taxes beyond the 1 percent limit after this year is with the approval of voters through an election issue.

Shelton said any help from the public can come as early as Monday's 9:50 a.m. public hearing concerning the 2003 budget.

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