Budget problems were no secret, commissioner says

Island County Commissioner Phil Bakke strongly refuted suggestions this week that county officials knew budget problems would force layoffs next year, but downplayed discussion of the issue due to the impending election.

County officials announced a $2 million budget shortfall during an emergency session early last week and said 30 positions would be cut, effective March 1. The impending layoffs caught many by surprise, leading some to criticize the county for keeping quiet about its financial problems even though the 2009 budget has been the topic of discussion for months.

“I’ve heard suggestions that this was this great kept secret. I completely reject that,” Bakke said. “There were lots of people at the county who work on the budget who knew there were issues.”

“It’s not just the board of commissioners that knew,” Bakke said, adding that the head of each department that generates a revenue stream — the health department, the planning department, auditor’s office and others — knew their revenues were down sharply.

Bakke, the outgoing District 1 commissioner, said it was hard for Budget Director Elaine Marlow to accurately forecast the drop-off in revenues for next year until it got closer to the election, adding that the timing was “somewhat coincidental.”

“The complexity for the budget director was that it continues to be a moving target,” Bakke said.

County officials could have been wrong about the number of positions that would be affected if they began to warn of layoffs before the revenue picture became clearer, he said, adding that his own future with the county also came to mind. It was better to wait until the actual number of affected jobs became clear, he said, rather than offer an early guess that could be way off the mark.

“I think that I knew there was going to be personnel cutbacks, but I urge you to look at it from my perspective. If I would have been able to finish the year, I think I would have been more inclined to openly talk about positions than I was, because I knew I would be able to make decisions on them.

“These are people I’ve known for 15 years, and some of them longer.

I don’t want people in the county family to get mixed messages.”

Island County currently has roughly 475 employees. The proposed layoffs include jobs in the planning department, the environmental health program in the health department, and in the offices for county auditor, assessor, treasurer, sheriff, prosecutor and beyond.

The sputtering economy is largely the culprit for the $2 million budget gap. Sales taxes are down 9 percent from last year and aren’t expected to increase significantly in 2009; the slowdown in the housing industry and a drop in revenues from lower interest rates are also to blame.

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

Last year, the county budget totaled $74 million; the 2009 budget is expected to top $67.5 million.

Other counties across Washington are also struggling with job cuts due to the staggering economy.

Snohomish County is expected to lay off roughly 250 employees, and 237 King County employees received layoff notices in October.

Bakke said the county’s budget situation should not have been a surprise. He noted there was talk of declining county revenues during the primary election, and budget talk intensified in the weeks leading up to the general election.

The county’s budget situation was one of the reasons he made a pledge not to raise taxes during the campaign, he added.

Talk on next year’s spending plan will continue this week. The board of commissioners will hold budget workshops at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19 in preparation for a public hearing and expected adoption of the county’s 2009 budget next month.

Larry Larson, director of the Island County Human Resource office, said the workers who will lose their jobs have not been notified, but that’s for a reason. It’s not official yet.

“No official decision will be made until the board passes the budget on Dec. 1,” he said.

Some employees who may be let go, however, have been warned.

“We figured that was trying to be nice to people,” Larson said.

The county has a goal of a 90-day notice for employees who will be laid off. Given that the cutbacks will take effect on March 1, and that commissioners are expected to adopt the budget the first week of December, the county may come close but may not meet that goal.

“We are going to give them 60 days for sure,” Larson said. “We’re going to make it as close to 90 days as we possibly can.”

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