Commissioners ask departments to explore 5 percent cuts


MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners asked elected officials and department heads to figure out how a 5 percent across-the-board cut could impact their departments in next year’s operating budget.

Commission Chairwoman Terry Willis said she came up with the across-the-board cut idea as the county tries to figure out how to balance its operating budget. The county needs to trim its budget by $2 million or else figure out a way to raise revenues to ease the cuts.

Willis said that a 5 percent across-the-board cut is the easiest strategy in starting the county’s budget balancing approach. It doesn’t mean each department will be cut by that amount, she said.

The county commissioners approved sending a letter to elected officials and department heads at their Monday afternoon meeting.

“When preparing your response, you can assume we will have a memorandum of understanding in place with the union allowing voluntary furloughs,” the letter states. “An explanation of how these cuts will affect the services you provide will be helpful.”

Sheriff Rick Scott says he’s disappointed that the 5 percent cut is looking more like a reality. The commissioners are asking for a plan to eliminate $466,582 from his $9.3 million budget.

“My budget is already up $300,000 because of the extra courthouse security costs,” Scott said. “Why is that in my budget? Why isn’t that in its own fund? Why should my deputies be punished because of those increased costs imposed upon my budget?”

Scott said the budget adjustment doesn’t include any of his requests, including the realistic retirement dollars that the county needs to pay out to his officers on the old LEOFF 1 plan. The county budgeted just $42,000 this year and recently retired Sheriff Mike Whelan estimated that the budget could be overspent by more than $201,000.

“I really want to sit down with the commissioners and talk about the ramifications here,” Scott said.

Prosecutor Stew Menefee is being asked to find $105,126 in his budget of $2.1 million.

“We’re down to the bone,” Menefee said. “We’re down to asking, ‘Which leg do we want to amputate?’ and that’s not a good way to do business. Nobody wants to talk about taxes, but I’m telling you the commissioners could have done something earlier this year.”

Menefee said that the county had an obvious need to fund courthouse security and improve public safety after the courthouse attack in March. With the goodwill toward Judge Dave Edwards and Deputy Polly Davin, who survived the attacks, Menefee said that the commissioners should have gone to the public with a request for a sales tax increase to have dedicated revenue to fix the problem. Instead, the county continues to draw from its reserves, which impacts all of the other offices, including his own.

“They failed to raise taxes by a small amount at a time when they could have had the public’s support,” Menefee said. “Now, we’re looking at large cuts and lots of money spent on courthouse security.”

Clerk Cheryl Brown said she absolutely will not lay off any of her eight staff members, although the commissioners are asking her for a plan to trim $32,602 from her budget of $652,031.

“I’m already below what I consider the minimum service level for my office, which is nine staff members,” Brown said. “I’m not doing furloughs. I will not lay one person off.”

Brown said her idea to save money is to reject all IT support from the county’s central services division. That could save her budget $27,000.

She said she’s also considering turning the clerk’s job into a part-time position and donating half her salary back to the county. That could be the savings the commissioners are looking for in her office.

“I have nothing to give them but blood,” Brown said. “I’d just work more from home.”

Treasurer Ron Strabbing says that if he cuts more in his office, it could impact the revenue streams to the county. The commissioners have asked Strabbing to find $27,763 out of his office’s $555,252 budget.

“I can barely do the services I can and yet just today the commissioners added one more duty,” Strabbing said.

On Monday, the commissioners empowered his office to sell properties that don’t sell at the annual tax title auction in hopes of selling off properties that sit idle all year long, while bringing extra funds to the county.

“But how do I do that if I don’t have the staff?” Strabbing said.

NOT ENOUGH CUTS

County Commissioner Herb Welch said he doesn’t feel comfortable with just ordering up a 5-percent cut without also asking department heads if they have any other alternative ideas to help the county.

To that end, Welch asked the letter to be amended to include the sentence, “Also, the commissioners will consider any other plans to accomplish the same results.”

The letter was first on the commissioner’s morning meeting agenda. Welch said he asked for the letter to be added to the afternoon session so that the public could be in on the budget conversation.

Not mentioned in the letter is that even a 5 percent cut is not enough to balance the county’s budget. The cut would only save the county $1.26 million. Budget Director Brenda Sherman said that another $733,864 needs to be found on top of that. To really balance the budget alone with cuts, Sherman said that a 7.84 percent across-the-board cut would be needed.

The county is trying to match its revenues with its expenditures for a balanced budget that doesn’t spend down any reserves. The county is expected to receive $23.5 million in revenue next year.

At this point, it’s questionable how much reserves the county will end this year with. Sherman’s figures show the county could end the year with about $3.5 million. However, Treasurer Ron Strabbing has analyzed the last eight years of county operating budgets and used statistics to show that it’s very possible the county could end the year with $4 million.

“We really need at least $4 million in the reserves to satisfy the State Auditor’s requirements so if that doesn’t work out, we may need to go back and figure out more cuts,” Sherman said.

Strabbing said his reserves estimate could very well be wrong, noting it doesn’t include hefty expenditures in courthouse security, for instance. But his estimate doesn’t include likely revenue increases in timber by the end of the year, noting the county still has three months to go before the end of the year.

“Could it be wrong?” Strabbing said. “Yes, it’s possible. And, unfortunately, due to staff shortages, we’re not able to really figure out why my numbers are different from the budget director’s numbers to really nail down the differences.”