Island County officials brace for state budget crisis crunch

Substance abuse prevention and housing assistance — two of the most dire needs on Whidbey — are among county programs facing an uncertain future because of the state education budget crisis.

Details of how many employees and programs could be affected is expected to be addressed Tuesday at the Island County Board of Commissioners weekly meeting.

Laying off employees whose salaries are fully or partially dependent on state funds is one option. Committing to funding state grant contracts through the month of July, is another.

All Washington counties face the possibility of shutting down programs and laying off workers or shuffling funds to cover costs if state lawmakers fail to pass a two-year state operating budget by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“This is unconscionable to me to put this many people at risk,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said at a Wednesday work session. “It throws peoples’ lives in disruption, both those receiving the services and those delivering the services.”

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found that school funding was not adequate or uniform.

Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries.

In the county health department, about $700,000 in state funds is spread across 22 program areas, said Keith Higman, health director. About 10 positions are affected. But he said he doubts lay-offs will be necessary.

“I do expect the legislature to act and that the budget that they pass will not require such reductions,” he said.

The newly-opened Island County Housing Support Center just recognized as a program of excellence by the National Association of Counties is among human service programs in jeopardy of being cut.

Housing Support staff provide a “one-stop service” for residents by helping them find affordable housing. They also address other needs, such as educational, job training, medical and mental health and veteran benefits. Many of the clients are homeless and on the brink of losing permanent shelter.

The center has assisted more than 800 people since August. But, depending on the action — or inaction — of lawmakers in Olympia, it could lose funding either on a temporary or permanent basis.

If a budget deal isn’t reached by the end of next week, about 26,000 state employees will receive temporary layoff notices, the state Office of Financial Management estimated in April.

Jackie Henderson, director of Human Services, said two staff jobs are fully funded with state dollars in her department. An additional five positions partially rely on state dollars.

“Several programs in our community that have contracts with us will also be affected,” she said.

State agencies have assured counties they will be reimbursed for services. However, it won’t cover programs that get whacked during on-going budget negotiations.

“The problem is we don’t know which programs will be funded (until) the state passes its budget,” Price Johnson said. “However, the board is bound by negotiated agreements with the local unions to provide 30-day notice prior to any lay-offs.”

Price Johnson said the county faced a similar quandary in 2015.

Washington state has never had a partial government shutdown, but the Legislature has taken its budget talks to the brink before, including in 2013 and 2015, with budgets not signed by the governor until June 30 both years.

Price Johnson called the continued practice of delayed budget adoption by the Legislature “frustrating and costly at the local level.

“And most importantly, it just undermines the public’s faith in their government.”