UPDATE | County to cut 30 jobs

Island County will cut approximately 30 jobs to close a $2 million hole in next year’s budget, county officials said Monday.

The county will finalize the cuts on Dec. 1 when the 2009 budget is adopted, and the layoffs will take effect March 1.

“If you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,” said Commissioner Mac McDowell.

The amount to be cut comprises roughly 10 percent of the general fund, the part of the county budget that pays for basic government services such as police protection, parks, public health and other departments.

Though some department heads have suggested ways to trim costs from the budget, putting off the purchase of new patrol cars for the sheriff’s office, for example, McDowell said some ideas would not appear to have the long-term impact the county hopes to achieve.

“I’m hesitant to accept one-time changes. I’m sure this is going to be more than one year’s recession,” he said.

County leaders met in an emergency budget workshop Monday to look at possible cuts.

“Island County has been affected by the downturn in the economy,” said Budget Director Elaine Marlow. “The good news is that the commissioners have set aside adequate reserves to get through three years.”

Still, that means the county will have to reduce staffing levels, as salaries and benefits comprise the largest expenditure in the general fund, Marlow said.

Sale taxes are down 9 percent from last year in Island County, and Marlow said they are not expected to increase significantly in 2009. The slowdown in the housing industry and the decline in the county’s revenue stream from lower interest rates are also major factors in the budget gap.

McDowell said he put together a smaller budget during the weekend before the election, and Commissioner John Dean also prepared a revised spending plan for 2009. The plan on the table is a hybrid of the two, McDowell said.

The proposed cutbacks include roughly eight jobs in the planning department, and another eight positions in the environmental health program in the health department.

Two positions will also be cut in the auditor’s office; two jobs in the assessor’s office and one position in the treasurer’s office. The proposed reductions also include two sheriff’s deputies, and a deputy prosecutor.

The reductions have been structured so affected employees will keep their jobs through Feb. 28, Marlow said.

“The board really did think about what are the priorities for the county, and obviously, it’s law and justice to keep people safe,” Marlow said, adding that 90 percent of the reductions are in areas outside the county’s law-and-justice programs.

Last year’s county budget was $74 million; the 2009 budget is expected to top $67.5 million.

Commissioners are expected to meet four more times before the budget is adopted Dec. 1. Work to refine the preliminary budget will continue, Marlow said.

The staggering economy has also hit other counties hard. Snohomish County is expected to lay off roughly 250 employees, and last month, 237 King County employees received layoff notices.

Local leaders said they’ve seen similar budget problems elsewhere.

“It’s pretty grim, but it’s no different from any other county. Unfortunately, it’s par for the course right now,” McDowell said.

“I can’t say I was shocked,” said Banks, who is still assessing how to make cuts in the prosecutor’s office. “We’ve been watching all the other counties around us. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Though he was not surprised, Banks said the budget process left him baffled.

“If I have to make cuts I understand that; we’ve been through this before,” he said, but added that the process to revise the budget seemed closed.

It shouldn’t be, Banks said, given that adopting an annual budget is one of the board’s highest duties.

“That’s the one biggie they have, the power of the purse. It seems like it should be done in the open, not by figuring out a way to avoid having an open meeting by giving separate, independently developed proposals to your budget director,” he said.

Banks said the cuts in his department may impact the prosecution of traffic crimes and licensing offenses, but would not affect the prosecution of bigger crimes.

“We would not do anything that would impact our prosecution of DUI, or domestic violence. Those have to be a higher priority. None of the felony level offenses would be impacted by cuts at this level,” he said.

Sheriff Mark Brown said he would rather hold off on new patrol cars and use the money for personnel.

“When you push vehicles to a higher mileage, you risk a situation that is risk-heavy in repair and maintenance,” Brown said Monday.

“But I’d rather do that than deplete my resources.”

Noting that Island County is the sixth-lowest staffed sheriff’s office in the state’s 39 counties, he said his payroll is at the same level as it was a year ago, event after being previously authorized to hire two more officers in the criminal division in 2008.

One of those hires took the place of a detective who resigned to move to Montana, Brown said. The other one was just hired Monday.

Both new officers are scheduled to attend the police academy in Burien, he said.

“I hope we can work with the commissioners on this,” Brown said. “I certainly hope they retain my numbers at the same level as last year.”

“I’m trying to be as frugal and honest as I can,” he said. “What I need is more than what I have. I don’t want to deplete what I do have.”

To make further cuts, he added, “would be a threat to our public safety.”

Record writer Roy Jacobson contributed to this story.

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