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Island County budget reductions: In worst case, 10 deputies will be cut

The sheriff would cut up to 10 deputies, the prosecutor may stop prosecuting about a 1,000 crimes each year, and the health department would have to eliminate a popular childhood nutrition program.

Island County officials presented these and many other grim scenarios in response to proposed budget cuts during a hearing Tuesday. The commissioners asked elected officials and department heads to answer “What if?” scenarios about hypothetical budget reductions.

“Should we stop taking care of children who are hungry or should we stop prosecuting criminals?” Commissioner Angie Homola asked rhetorically.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson corrected her, saying they aren’t talking about cutting one or the other, but both.

“We’re at a tipping point,” Price Johnson said.

Commissioners are in the process of assembling two budgets for 2011. They would adopt one if a $2 million property tax increase on the August primary ballot passes, and the other if it doesn’t.

If the ballot measure does pass, the money will be used to maintain the current budget. In case it doesn’t, commissioners are preparing to cut $2 million of the $21 million current expense fund budget.

The commissioners’ proposed cuts under the “What if?” scenarios include: a 10 percent reduction in the law and justice departments; elimination of funding for 4-H and Master Gardeners at WSU Extension; cutting all parks maintenance; elimination of the Children’s Commission and 40 to 50 percent of the current expense funding for the health department; 40 percent reduction of county funding to seniors services; a 10 percent reduction in dog control and a 5 percent cut in the animal shelter budget; a 5 percent reduction in budgets for the assessor, auditor and treasurer; and a 5 percent cut in emergency management.

Some officials refused to even consider more cuts.

“Any reduction would result in the inability to meet our constitutional requirements to provide mandated programs for the citizens of Island County,” said Mike Merringer, superior and juvenile court administrator.

Yet the commissioners may have little choice but to make cuts in law and justice, which receives about 57 percent of the current expense fund. Even the complete elimination of non-mandated program funding, such as WSU and parks, wouldn’t be enough to bridge the budget gap.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said a 10 percent reduction would mean the loss of seven to 10 deputies. He said he would have to close a precinct office, reassign a couple of detectives to patrol and possibly reduce scrutiny of sex offenders.

“Cutting the sheriff’s office budget by 10 percent would greatly affect public and officer safety in Island County,” Brown said.

The sheriff’s office and the jail will receive a total of about $7 million, or a third of the current expense fund, this year. Brown said he currently has 39 commissioned officers, including himself and the undersheriff.

Island County Greg Banks presented an option of suspending prosecution of all misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor crimes except DUI and domestic violence assault cases. This would allow him to eliminate one of the two deputy prosecutors in district court, plus one paralegal, in order to meet the proposed 10 percent reduction.

The option, he said, would amount to amnesty for those who commit traffic crimes, petty theft, vandalism, trespassing, animal control violations, pot possession and many other misdemeanor crimes in the county. That’s about 1,000 cases a year that wouldn’t be prosecuted.

“I would look at things that are least serious and least dangerous to the community,” Banks said, referring to crimes he would stop prosecuting.

Another option, he said, would be to eliminate a felony deputy prosecutor and a paralegal, then “undercharge” certain felony crimes, lowering the felony caseload.

“We would use a legal fiction to make them misdemeanors,” he said, adding that the problem is that it would increase misdemeanor caseloads, cause crowding by sending more inmates to jail instead of prison and burn out the remaining felony prosecutors with unrelentingly serious cases.

A third option Banks presented was to eliminate one of the two civil deputy prosecutors. The problem is that the two civil deputies currently share the same paralegal, so there would be no paralegal to lay off. Also, he said it would hamstring the civil operation.

Keith Higman, director of the health department, explained that his office received about $650,000 this year in current expense funds. He said that a 40 to 50 percent cut would require the elimination of several significant programs besides the Children’s Commission.

One of the programs that could be on the chopping block, he said, is “Welcome New Baby.” The program includes nurse home visits to new mothers and early learning outreach and education.

Similarly, Higman said he would eliminate Maternal Support Services, which allows public health nurses to deliver maternity and parenting education to low-income mothers.

In addition, Higman said he would cut surface water testing in half and greatly reduce the number of classes for self-inspection of septic tanks.

Perhaps most significantly, Higman said he would have to end the county’s participation in Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC. The purpose of the popular federal program is to provide extra food and nutrition to low-income, pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants and children up to 5 years old.

“This is a very depressing conversation to participate in,” Higman said.

Timothy Lawrence, the director of WSU Extension of Island County, explained that his office received $147,000 from the county this year.

He indicated that the elimination of the 4-H and Master Gardener coordinators would cut about $39,000 from the budget. He said the programs could continue with volunteers, and with him as a part-time coordinator, but there would be consequences. There would be no 4-H presence at the fair, only minimal WSU support for either program, a curtailed annual garden workshop, the end of Master Gardener classes and a reduction of plant diagnostic services. The office may also have to sell its “rodeo” property on Green Valley Road, which belongs to the university.

Lawrence suggested that the county would save another $24,000 in the mandated noxious weed control program by suspending the weed board and instead use other resources, especially volunteers from the Master Gardeners and the Beach Watchers, to fulfill the state requirement.

While the actual shortfall facing the county next year is about $1.2 million, the commissioners are talking about cutting $2 million because the five-year projection has the annual deficit reaching nearly $2 million in a few years.

Budget Director Elaine Marlow said the county will begin having cash-flow problems in two years unless either cuts or new revenues amount to $2 million.

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