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Island County budget gap now tops $2 million

Island County’s budget gap is now expected to top $2 million, double the amount that left county leaders scrambling for solutions when the financial crisis was discovered early last month.

The deficit — originally pegged at $1 million — is now nearing the size of last year’s budget hole, which was filled with employee layoffs that resulted in the elimination of 31 jobs.

The county board of commissioners has sent a memo to department heads and other elected officials, asking them to look at reductions in public services between 5 percent and 20 percent.

Commissioner John Dean said the dramatic drop in investment revenues, combined with shrinking revenues from sales taxes and planning and environmental health fees, were to blame. The main culprit remains the staggering national economy, which has devastated the housing industry and spooked consumer spending.

“We have no control over it,” Dean said, adding that the shortfall estimate was just that, an estimate.

“It could go higher depending on what happens in the world,” said Commissioner John Dean. “It is our best guess at this point.”

“People are not going out and spending. People are not buying homes,” he said. “And all the interest rates have bottomed out.”

Budget Director Elaine Marlow said planning and environmental health fees have fallen 50 percent, and sales tax revenues are down as well.

“Sales taxes are tracking about 10 percent lower than projected,” Marlow said.

Though the budget gap appears to be closer to $1.8 million at this point, county officials are looking to cut $2 million from the county budget.

County commissioners have asked department heads and other elected officials to present ideas for cutting services by Friday, March 13.

The request is the latest round of brainstorming over the county’s beleaguered budget.

Just after the financial crisis was announced last month, commissioners met with county employees and asked them to submit ideas via e-mail or through notes in drop boxes located in county buildings.

There has been no shortage of ideas. More than 75 pages of suggestions have already been submitted to commissioners from county workers, according to a Record review of the documents.

The review of e-mails and budget suggestions show county employees are split over the budget-cutting ideas already on the table, from reduced workweeks to unpaid furloughs. Others, in their correspondence to commissioners, share their deep personal concerns about the financial crisis and their worries about how they will survive if their jobs or hours land on the cutting block.

“Morale is so low, employees are fearful of how they will take care of themselves, their families or even if they will have a job,” one county employee told commissioners in an e-mail. “The real fear is they will have both hours and pay cuts.”

“It is unfair to ask most of the people to do more work with less time for less pay,” another employee wrote.

“Three women in my department are single and already struggle to simply just get by,” she continued. “I am pained to watch people in the assessor’s office have to move into smaller houses, lose family pets, worry about car payments...”

Some suggested across-the-board pay cuts of 5 percent for department heads and elected officials: “It has to hurt us all.”

Other county employees have pointed to the disparity between departments that will occur when the budget ax falls.

“I wish to go on record as saying that before I would vote to cut my pay and hours, I would want to have it guaranteed that all employees, represented and not represented employees/elected officials and non-elected department heads will also place themselves on the cut list,” one employee wrote.

Many employees focused on potential ways to save money or increase efficiencies in county government, from bulk purchases of paper and computer printer ink, to taking away county cars that some employees drive home at night.

Another employee said the county should hold off on buying new computers, as well as other “peripheral purchases.” The worker added that when someone suggested doing away with county-provided Blackberry devices during a department meeting, “Our ‘leader’ kept a very tight lip.”

“Department heads may not need a laptop, a color printer, a personal scanner,” the employee added.

Other ideas suggested so far include:

A freeze on salaries;

Lowering or eliminating the car allowance for county commissioners;

“Pay to play” for 4-H;

Creating a fee for using county boat ramps;

Enforcing dog tag fees;

Reducing permit fees to spur development that would help the economy, but doubling fees when the economy improves;

Implementing a hiring freeze.

In the memo recently sent to department heads, commissioners reminded them to avoid discussing with employees how they would be personally affected by the budget deficit, and to not ask workers what they could personally contribute to reducing costs.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the board understands the budget problems are taking a toll on employees.

“I fully understand the human side of this. It’s an incredibly stressful time,” she said.

“Island County, as an organization, has been fortunate to have had so much stability in its finances in years’ past. But that doesn’t exist now,” Price Johnson said.

Dean, the chairman of the board of commissioners, said they would talk again Wednesday about the budget during a work session.

He said he will propose cuts to the commissioners’ budget, including the elimination of the car allowance for commissioners. Commissioners trimmed the car allowance each commissioner receives annually from $9,600 to $8,400 during the last round of budget cuts in December.

The move should offset the automatic pay raise that commissioners will get this year, he said.

Commissioners and other elected officials will receive automatic pay raises this year; for commissioners, it’s a 5 percent increase.

Dean said that while the state Constitution prevents commissioners from cutting their pay, and that of other elected officials, commissioners can make other cuts to their budget.

“I’m sure the other two commissioners are on board,” he added.

Commissioners are expected to set service priorities for the county before making a final decision on budget cuts.

“In my mind, by the end of April we want to have a pretty clear picture of where we’re going,” he said.

County officials plan to let employees know as soon as possible about reductions in staff and services.

“The sooner we can get some answers to people, the better,” he said.

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