$19 million county budget has little to spare

It looks like Island County has to tighten its belt yet another notch as officials work to balance next year’s budget.

Early figures show the county have to shave more than $400,000 out of a projected $19 million in general fund expenditures to come up with a balanced 2004 budget.

The general fund does not include major budget items such as a road budget expected to come in at over $5 million, or money for capital expenses.

Budget Director Elaine Marlow presented a look at next year’s budget during a workshop with the Board of Island County Commissioners Monday morning. She didn’t bring much to work with.

“It’s a bare-boned budget,” Marlow said, adding that the current budget is based on the assumption that every job position the commissioners approved this year will continue next year.

Marlow attributed the shortfall to skyrocketing health insurance costs and recent union negotiations that provided a 2-percent cost of living adjustment for staff.

The county paid $1.5 million in health insurance premiums this year. That figure is expected to rise by 23 percent increase next year.

The county suffered a 26-percent increase this year in insurance rates.

The county negotiated the cost of living adjustment adjustment with one of the five unions. Other county employees will see similar increases, Marlow said.

Commissioner Mac McDowell said the adjustment keeps pace with increases in the consumer price index.

“The idea is that they didn’t lose any buying power,” he said.

McDowell said cutting $400,000 from a $19 million budget should be accomplished without having to resort to layoffs.

Other options to resolve the money issue would be to go to the voters for an increase property taxes or to increase county fees.

McDowell said neither option is currently viable because he believes voters wouldn’t support such an initiative.

This is the second consecutive year the county has dealt with budget problems. Last year, the county dealt with a $770,000 shortfall.

That shortfall forced the county to lay off the equivalent of 11 employees, make a 4-percent reduction in the maintenance and operation budget, and cut 40 percent from the capital purchase budget.

Last year, the county informed employees of pending layoffs in August. McDowell said the employees knew of the county’s budget situation the prior spring.

While the budget presented is tight, it doesn’t take into account the supplemental requests the department made this year. These requests are, in part, an attempt to restore previous cutbacks and to keep up with various projects. For example, the prosecutor’s office wants to restore a deputy prosecutor position that was eliminated.

In addition, the public works department wants to hire four seasonal employees next year to mow shoulders on county roads as part of the county’s no-spray policy. This policy was enacted in April 2002 in response to community pressure to eliminate the use of herbicides by the county.

Public Works Director Bill Oakes said the county would hire these employees for nine months to provide enough manpower to keep up with the shoulder mowing and fill in on other projects.

Oakes said he has used an incremental approach to stretch out the financial burden of mowing. The county spent $180,000 for new mowers in 2002 and needs $105,000 for the additional staff next year.

Other additions include reinstating a probation secretary and hiring an associate land use planner.

Because most of the additional budget items relate to staffing, McDowell said it would be unlikely that many of them will be approved.

The commissioners spent this week looking through the preliminary budget and will meet in a budget workshop on Monday.

The public hearing for the budget normally takes place the first Monday in December.

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