County approves several hires as budget issues loom


MONTESANO — Facing declining revenue in the current budget and a still unresolved budget for next year, the Grays Harbor County commissioners have approved filling three vacant positions, a temporary replacement for an employee on leave and a raise for a department head.

But they stopped short of filling two vacant corrections officer positions in the Juvenile Detention Center, approving a motion to ask the Superior Court judges for more information on that request.

On Monday, the commissioners approved a request from the Assessor’s Office to hire a temporary real property appraiser to fill a position for the next six months while an employee is out on medical leave. They also approved a request from the Environmental Health division to fill a water lab technician post and approved a request to fill a forester post in the Forestry Department.

Last week, the county commissioners authorized Sheriff Rick Scott to fill a vacant deputy position caused as officers were promoted in the wake of Sheriff Mike Whelan’s retirement. Scott said he’s looking to fill the post by January.

The deputy, appraiser and water lab technician are paid out of the cash-strapped General Fund. The forester is funded through its own budget, derived from the sale of timber.

County Commission Chair Terry Willis noted that the commissioners brought each department head in with a hiring request and each made an excellent case for why the positions were needed.

In the Environmental Health division, not filling the position could have meant the loss of revenue that helps fund the position, Utilities Director Kevin Varness said.

Assessor Rick Hole made his pitch for the temporary employee, noting, “When the employee goes away, the work doesn’t go away.”

“We have work that needs to be done,” agreed Commissioner Mike Wilson.

Willis said Monday that she already gave Sheriff Scott a head’s up that the vacant deputy position is not necessarily safe until budget balancing is done in the next few weeks.

“I didn’t want someone to get hired and moved here only to have the position eliminated,” Willis said, emphasizing that no decisions had yet been made on next year’s budget.

Budget Director Brenda Sherman said that her latest projections show a decline in sales tax receipts as well as a delay in county timber revenue. Those revenue losses along with extra funds needed to cover courthouse security costs, repairs needed to pipes leaking at Vance Creek Park, additional costs in autopsies and indigent burials in the Coroner’s Office and more legal fees for the Superior Court lawsuit are helping drive down the county’s reserve balance, Sherman said.

The county had hoped to end the year with $4 million to $3.8 million in reserves, but it will likely be closer to $3.5 million or $3.4 million, Sherman told the county commissioners recently. After a number of supplemental spending increases already this year, including providing extra funds to the courts, the county has a $24 million operating budget.

Diving deeper into the reserves will only impact next year’s budget.

If the commissioners approved their preliminary 2013 operating budget as is — with everything department heads and elected officials want and before the commissioners have whittled away at them — by the end of next year the county would probably be left with about $800,000 in reserves, not even enough to cover half of the county’s monthly payroll.

After a series of budget meetings, on Wednesday, the commissioners start their budget balancing sessions to determine what stays and what goes in next year’s budget. The meeting is slated for 9 a.m. and will be Webcast at http://www.co.grays-harbor.wa.us/gh_minutes/AVArchives.asp.

SALARIES

On Monday, the commissioners also approved an immediate $3,000 raise for Environmental Health Director Jeff Nelson. Nelson didn’t receive a raise earlier this year, even though he was contractually entitled to one through “step increases” that award raises based on experience and longevity, Willis said. County budget records show he had been making $69,972.

Willis said that Nelson has a contract with the county and should have received a raise back in February. All of the county’s employees who have contracts with the county have received their scheduled raises, but most exempt employees who do not have contracts have seen their salaries frozen.

The salary hike will likely ignite talking points from other department heads and their exempt employees, who haven’t received raises in up to four years.

“There are now requests out there that all exempts should have contracts with the same guaranteed raise provisions,” Willis said. “Well, that’s a total policy change and we have to stop and consider all of the ramifications. … We have exempt employees that are not managers.”

Willis acknowledged that there’s even some talk among exempt employees to form their own union to fight for raises.

“That’s always an option for them but there’s a reason exempts are exempt because they work directly for an elected official and are there for the agenda of the elected official,” Willis said. “So, as elected officials change, those positions can change.”

The Coroner is the lowest paid department head in the county at $59,388 per year and is asking for a $6,000 raise. Other elected officials and exempt employees are asking for raises, too.

The 2013 budget request from recently retired Sheriff Whelan asked for 5 percent raises for his exempt employees. When Sheriff Scott took over, some of the promotions in his office actually resulted in pay cuts.

“It is unfair to the hard-working men and women of Grays Harbor County that those who work for the Board of County Commissioners get raises and the rest go begging,” Whelan wrote in his last budget presentation to the commissioners.