Commissioners settle on 3.5 percent across the board cuts

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners gave their initial blessing on Monday to a budget plan that would cut 3.5 percent across all county departments and increase the property tax burden on residents within cities for the second year in a row.

Final approval won’t come until the commissioners host a public hearing 2 p.m., Monday, Dec. 3. in the commissioner chambers at the County Administration Building in Montesano.

The commissioners set a deadline of Thursday morning to solicit feedback from department heads and elected officials on the initial proposal. The commissioners plan to meet again to talk about the budget at 9 a.m. on Thursday in their chambers.

County Commissioners Terry Willis and Mike Wilson lost their respective elections and won’t be returning next year. Commissioner-Elect Frank Gordon sat in the audience listening to the proposed plan and incumbent Commissioner Herb Welch said he’d keep Commissioner-Elect Wes Cormier up-to-date on the current plans. Cormier is still working in the Assessor’s Office until the end of December.

Instead of directing specific cuts, the commissioners directed their budget staff to create “contra entries” in each department’s budget. That means each elected official or department head can decide what to cut or, more importantly, when to direct cuts to their department. In essence, it punts the issue of the cuts down the road to the next Board of County Commissioners if some departments choose not to cut their budgets as directed. The 3.5 percent cut is less than the 5 percent cut mentioned just a few weeks ago.

As an example, 3.5 percent cuts could mean $326,791 to the Sheriff’s Office, $73,588 to the Prosecutor’s Office, $24,704 to Superior Court, $78,522 to the Juvenile Detention Center.

Also up in the air is the budgeted amount the commissioners are scheduling for public defense costs. Just last month, the county was preparing to budget more than $1.8 million in indigent defense costs — double the current $990,466 spent on contracted public defense services this year. The cost increases are in the wake of new case load limits put in place by the state Supreme Court. But, on Monday, the commissioners revised those estimates to about $1.29 million.

Willis said she felt comfortable about the revised figures after talking to District Court Judge Steve Brown and Prosecutor Stew Menefee. The public defense element is important because if the costs were budgeted higher it would mean more cuts in other departments.

Menefee, who was at the meeting, did caution the commissioners that it’s a real crap shoot right now figuring out what the defense costs could be.

“It’s all a guesstimate in unknown territory,” Menefee told the commissioners. “It’s a very soft, squishy number. … I make no promises.”

If public defense costs soar, that will also be an issue for the next Board of County Commissioners to figure out.

The tentative budget would actually add to the county’s reserves by $250,000, with $24.35 million in revenue and $24.1 million in expenditures. But just how much money the county is expected to have to start off next year is still in flux.

Budget Director Brenda Sherman’s figures show the county could end the year with $3.5 million. But a statistical analysis by Treasurer Ron Strabbing shows the county could end the year with $4 million.

The commissioners are choosing to be optimists and are budgeting at $4 million.

If those numbers are wrong, Commissioner Herb Welch said, the county very well could get in trouble with the State Auditor’s Office, which has told the county it ought to have a cushion of 20 percent in its reserve balance to cover bills and payroll. The state Auditor’s Office issued a finding against the county last year for not having an adequate reserve balance and relying too much on interfund loans.

Sherman noted that the budget for 2013 doesn’t rely on interfund loans at all — the first time in several years.

“We could spend the reserves down, but if we decided to use more reserves, then we will have to deal with the state,” Commissioner Mike Wilson said.

The commissioners’ tentative budget plan also allocates $100,000 for legal fees to continue fighting the lawsuit filed by the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges over last year’s budget cuts.

Welch said he’s hopeful the case may be settled in the next few months.

“Despite all intentions, it would be prudent to leave it in,” Welch said of the budget for legal fees. “And if we don’t need it, we’ll say Merry Christmas.”

The tentative plan also would re-impose a property tax hike on residents within local cities through a road levy shift.

The levy shift option spurred many city councils on the Harbor to pass resolutions condemning the county and opposing the move and led to further comments that the county isn’t doing a good job of getting feedback from its mayors and councils. Hoquiam and Cosmopolis have already passed resolutions this year telling the county not to pursue the road levy shift again in 2013.

The move gave the county $750,000 last year and they’ve budgeted to have the same amount this year.

However, Wilson said he’d be open to increasing the road levy shift even more.

“We could raise the levy shift more,” Wilson said. “I understand I’m probably not going to be sitting in this seat in a month because of the levy shift but it’s low-hanging fruit.”

Auditor Vern Spatz urged the county on Monday to increase the amount from $750,000 to $1.5 million and do away with the 3.5 percent across the board cuts.

The plan presented on Monday was crafted by Willis with the county’s budget staff. No alterations were made to it after Welch and Wilson looked at it, although Willis said she’s still open to amendments after the county receives public input.

The plan includes a 3 percent increase in medical costs for the county. The county also restores all of its county employees to full-time and does away with the one-day-a-month forced shutdown and temporary layoffs. However, some county offices may elect to shut down any way to comply with the 3.5 percent cut to their offices.

The plan does not include any raises for union employees. Negotiations continue with the unions. And if raises are approved, it would come out of the county’s reserve balance, unless more cuts are imposed.

A 1 percent raise for the unions could mean an extra $121,121 out of the general fund and $103,233 out of other, miscellaneous funds. If the raise is 2 percent, double that amount. If it’s 4 percent, quadruple the amount.