MONTESANO — Potential 5 percent across-the-board cuts could mean layoffs and staff cuts at the Sheriff’s Office, Planning & Building and the WSU Extension Office, according to budget proposals submitted to the Grays Harbor County commissioners last week.
But some elected officials say enough is enough.
Commissioners asked for plans identifying how the cuts could impact departments before moving forward on their budget. The commissioners didn’t meet to discuss the budget last week and have no meetings scheduled this week. They don’t need to approve the budget until December.
A 5 percent 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 a 7.84 percent across-the-board cut would be needed.
Sheriff Rick Scott has proposed laying off two court deputies, leaving a deputy position vacant, eliminating the residential deputy program and dissolving the Grays Harbor Drug Taskforce to come up with his cuts. His plan also would close the front offices two days a week.
Commissioner Herb Welch said Tuesday he was concerned about the potential cuts to the Sheriff’s Office, especially to the residential deputy program on the North and South Beaches, which has become popular with local residents, as well as the elimination of the drug taskforce. Welch said he’d like to talk more about the impacts first before moving forward.
“I agree across-the-board cuts don’t work for everyone,” Welch said.
The county’s drug taskforce, in place for about 20 years, gets $217,200 split between the prosecutor, sheriff and police agencies in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Scott proposes disbanding the taskforce because the budget cuts would force him to place his sergeant in charge of the group back in the patrol division. That also would mean giving back the grant dollars.
“While I am a huge, huge proponent of the drug taskforce, and I was the taskforce commander back in 1991, I truly have done everything humanly possible to protect it from this kind of possible disbandment,” Scott said. “I am hoping when the county commissioners see the ramifications of cuts to public safety to this degree that we will be doing more harm than good in asking for cuts to this degree to the sheriff’s budget because of collateral damage.”
Scott acknowledged the judges may not be happy with the security cuts, but he says recent judicial orders would only require two security personnel as well as metal detectors.
“We would still have a courthouse security deputy, our deputy director of security and unarmed screeners, an X-ray machine and metal detectors would all remain in place and we would still have the ability to ramp up for special needs,” Scott said.
Planning & Building has proposed waiting to hire a new director until July, which could impact “our ability to plan and implement long-term prjects and administer day-to-day operations,” according to a recommendation by Utilities Director Kevin Varness. Another option could be laying off a half-time building inspector, which Varness says “would not allow for time to be spent on compliance, complaints and abatements and would reduce the ability to provide timely inspections and plan reviews.”
And a 5 percent reduction of $9,176 at the WSU Extension Office will likely leave just one county educator to cover local administrator, agriculture, natural resources and community development for the long-term future rather than the current two educators.
District Court Judges Steve Brown and Tom Copland wrote a letter to the commissioners saying that an across-the-board cut is no longer feasible. They credited their probation staff for continuing giving back 20 percent of their salaries for another year and say they most recently were proactive in not filling a vacant position.
“You might want to rethink this across-the-board budget approach,” the judges write. “In times of want, a household does not reduce necessities and non-necessities by the same amount. The non-necessities are simply eliminated in favor of food and heat. I know of no reason the county should not prioritize accordingly. And even if one does not accept this premise, across the board cuts do impact courts differently than other departments as our expenditures are based on factors that are totally out of our control. …
“It is tempting to go on at length as to why your budget request is not reasonable, but we will spare you. … If you want to make additional cuts yourselves, be prepared to explain to the citizens of this county why their criminal justice system no longer works.”
Assessor Rick Hole has not yet come up with a plan to reduce costs in his office. Prosecutor Stew Menefee says he has not yet turned in a plan, either.
“It won’t be much of a plan for them because we don’t have anything we can really cut except people,” Menefee said.
Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards says the judges did not submit a plan to cut budgets for the Juvenile Detention Center or the Superior Court budgets.
“We submitted our budget based on what our minimum requirements are to keep the court open,” Edwards said. “This insanity of across-the-board budget cuts has to end.”
Auditor Vern Spatz is lobbying to increase the possible revenue estimates his office provided to filings, motor vehicle licensing and other fees, instead of doing cuts. Without that option, he says he’ll be forced to eliminate or curtail “one or more services starting with Licensing, then Accounts Payable, with Recording services next in line.”
“The Auditor’s Office is at the lowest level of budgeting without dismantling it,” Spatz cautious the county commissioners. “We do all the same services other county auditor offices provide but with less staff per thousand than any of our peers.”
The Clerk’s Office offers minor cuts to various line items to come up with savings. Clerk Cheryl Brown says she will not lay off employees.
“This office currently operates below minimum staffing to do what is required by law,” Brown said. “Previously, each department was asked to submit their mandated duties to Commissioner (Terry) Willis and the budget director. I submitted my mandated duties but never received any indication they were reviewed or utilized regarding budget concerns. Again, the commissioners’ strategy — and I use that word lightly — is to cut a percentage across the board with no regard to the mandated duties of any office or prioritizing the budget.”
Coroner Dan Burns has proposed reducing services and supplies in his office to come up with a $13,497 reduction.
“As I have advised you in the past, I can’t predict actual needed expenditures because the circumstances surrounding each death dictate our budget needs,” Burns said.
The Noxious Weed Board also sent a letter to the commissioners objecting to the 5 percent cut, noting its program has been cut by 38 percent since last year. It asks to keep the same level intact without more cuts.
“Once an invasive species has taken hold, the economic cost of restoring the area far exceeds the cost of funding a program that is capable of addressing issues before they are out of control,” the board writes.
Dale Gowan, the director of Central Services, says he has two employees willing to take four days off a month in voluntary furloughs.
Public Health Director Joan Brewster says she will hold off on filling vacant positions, but cautions it could mean “a slower start on some grant programs and difficulty meeting deliverables.”
The commissioners, themselves, are budgeting to take the 5 percent reduction from their salaries and benefits next year. Whether that means more donations or another approach is up to the commissioners, Clerk of the Board Donna McCallum said. Of course, two of the three incumbent commissioners are not coming back next year.
Environmental Health has proposed delaying hiring a vacant environmental health specialist until next May. But Environmental Health Director Jeff Nelson notes that delays may very well “jeopardize our ability to fully recoup grant dollars as billable hours will be reduced.” The county’s food inspection program, West Nile virus surveillance and public water system inspections could also be impacted.
Instead of more custodian or maintenance layoffs, Utilities Director Kevin Varness has proposed a few individual departments start to cover their own utility bills or other fees. For instance, the Juvenile Detention Center could be on its own to the tune of $57,072 to cover electric, gas and water bills. And the Sheriff’s Office may have to find an additional $29,172 to cover fees to the city of Montesano. Of course, the plan would mean those departments would have to figure out their own cuts to come up with the extra expenses.