Commissioners eye priorities for 2014 budget, want union talks open to public

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners say their goal is to have another balanced budget in 2014 that doesn’t dive into reserves.

The commissioners set their priorities for their 2014 budget on Monday as they glanced back at the budget over the past six months in a special morning workshop with Budget Director Brenda Sherman.

Of note for next year: every single union contract is up for negotiation. With the absence of Commission Chairman Herb Welch, who remains in the hospital, County Commissioner Frank Gordon was designated the point person to work with the Teamsters union while County Commissioner Wes Cormier was designated to work with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Cormier, a former union steward in the Assessor’s Office, says he feels comfortable with the contracts for the courthouse and public works employees. Gordon says he’s been trying to get to know the employees at the Sheriff’s Office, which are represented by the Teamsters.

Cormier says he wants to try something new with negotiations this year.

“I’m going to ask if we can have negotiations in public meetings,” Cormier said. “I don’t think it’s happened here before, but I don’t think it will hurt to ask. That way any member of the public can come in and see what the process is like. I am for complete transparency in this process.”

Typically, bargaining sessions have been closed to anyone who isn’t specifically invited in.

Human Resources Director Marilyn Lewis says that until contract negotiations are complete, it’s a complete unknown how much money the county should budget for salary increases, if anything. Lewis says she is budgeting for a 10 percent increase in medical benefit costs, however.

Despite doing away with half of the across-the-board cuts the commissioners put in place and giving extra funds to the court budgets under a recent lawsuit settlement, Sherman says the county budget is still in pretty good shape.

The county is on track to having an ending cash balance for 2013 of $5.5 million — up $1 million from the budgeted figure. And Sherman says those figures may get even better with additional timber money coming in — noting there’s an increase of $272,631 coming in for a timber excise tax, $104,000 from the federal government for a timber payment in lieu of taxes, and another $421,656 in projected proceeds from county timber. That said, Sherman said there’s still $259,654 in unbudgeted expenses that need to be accounted for. That leaves an extra $538,633 that could be coming to the county soon on top of what’s already there.

Cormier says that it’s good news that the county’s budget is doing better, but, he notes, the budget still includes an extra $750,000 in property taxes from the unpopular road levy shift, which Cormier says he would like to do away with next year.

The county commissioners approved a statement to issue to department heads, noting “We have made progress overcoming financial difficulties resulting from the economic decline that occurred in recent years, but we still have issues to address. It is our intention to maintain an adequate cash reserve to provide working capital to meet our operating needs throughout the year and lessen the impact of unforeseen revenue shortfalls or unanticipated expenditures.”

The commissioners say the priority is to “limit spending to available county revenues and provide a level of service, which will put us on a sustainable fiscal path.”

The county also wants to set aside more money next year to deal with “the preservation of our infrastructure.”

The county is requesting department heads and fellow elected officials take those priorities to heart in submitting their department budgets to the commissioners this fall.