MONTESANO — Most of the county’s mayors showed up in person Monday at a county budget hearing to condemn the county commissioners’ plan to implement a road levy shift raising property taxes on residents within city limits.
“It is time for the county’s financial mismanagement to end and the commissioners take responsibility and become accountable for the issues at hand, just as the cities have had to do during these difficult economic times,” the mayors wrote in a letter presented to the commissioners. “It is not appropriate for the County to continue trying to balance the Commission’s budget on the backs of the citizens of the cities.”
The county’s $24.1 million operating budget for 2013 counts on $750,000 from the road levy shift. To avoid the shift, the county would have to find additional cuts or additional revenue, or a combination of both. The budget already includes 3.5 percent in cuts and will include laying off at least one court security officer. During a Monday morning session, the commissioners authorized Commission Chairman Herb Welch to issue layoff notices as it becomes necessary during the budget fallout.
Monday’s hearing was a chance for anyone to comment on any aspect of next year’s budget. Other citizens, including two fire chiefs on the North Beach, urged the commissioners to restore $50,000 in funding to the Sheriff’s Office to continue the resident deputy program.
Despite numerous public comments and packed chambers, no decisions were made Monday on either the road levy shift, the resident deputy program or the main operating budget. One reason for tabling the issue until next Monday is that the issue of employee raises is still unresolved. The commissioners had a bargaining session with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees recently. And, this week, members of the AFSCME Courthouse and Public Works Divisions are scheduled to vote on a potential raise. The county also has unresolved contracts with its Teamsters Union.
Commissioner Terry Willis said the question of whether any potential raises would come out of individual department budgets or the county’s reserves must still be decided.
A potential 2 percent raise for the unions could mean an extra $242,242 out of the general fund and $206,466 out of other, miscellaneous funds, such as the Roads fund.
Fire Chief John Collum of Fire District 8 at Pacific Beach and Fire Chief Richard Dixon of Fire District 16 at Copalis Crossing both asked the commissioners to restore funding to the resident deputy program.
Sheriff Rick Scott said he would be forced to discontinue the program under his current set of cuts. The resident deputy program places two deputies in the North Beach area and one in the South Beach area, who regularly patrol their areas and get to know the communities.
Chief Collum says that without a deputy on the beat, it will increase the wait time of ambulances trying to get to emergency scenes.
He cited several cases in which paramedics were unable to get to patients because they had to wait a half hour for a deputy to clear a scene where a call involved a weapon.
“We’re in a crisis of common sense,” added Chief Dixon, who said call volume in his area has gone up 35 percent since this same time last year.
Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson, Westport Mayor Michael Bruce, Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines, Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler and Montesano Mayor Ken Estes attended the meeting on Monday and submitted a letter protesting the potential road levy shift.
“The municipalities, despite having their own police forces, courts, treasurers, prosecutors, building departments, parks departments and legislative bodies pay over half of the General Levy for Grays Harbor County,” the mayors wrote.
Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney and the Hoquiam City Council also sent a resolution condemning the potential levy shift a few weeks back. Raines and the Cosmopolis City Council also took that action.
And, on Monday, the commissioners officially received a letter from Elma Mayor Dave Osgood and the Elma City Council also signed opposing the levy shift.
“We would ask that you stop trying to shift the responsibility and blame for the county’s fiscal condition to others and recognize that the three of you have made the decisions, no one else,” Osgood and his five-member council wrote in the letter.
Montesano Mayor Estes said his council thought long and hard last week and decided not to pursue a 1 percent tax increase that would have brought in an additional $6,000 in revenue to the city’s tax base. Yet, the county’s levy shift would raise $37,678 from his residents. He says that’s not a fair approach.
Raines told the commissioners she suspected they will approve the road levy shift no matter what, but, at a minimum, expected the commissioners to explain what their residents in cities will get for the added expense.
Mayor Dingler noted that Ocean Shores just barely has $200,000 in reserves and she compares that to the potential $4.2 million in reserves the county is budgeted to have next year.
“We are talking about cutting our staff in innumerable ways,” Dingler said. “We are looking at, can we tax our people again? And the answer seems to be a resounding, ‘No.’ We cannot ask them for more. And yet you are out there asking them for money we don’t have any more. You’re squeezing us. We need your help. We need to work with you to sort these things out to figure out how we can all come through this.”
The commissioners also received letters and testimony from a few residents in Ocean Shores opposing the move.
“As a small city living on the edge, you are making it impossible to move forward,” testified Lillian Broadbent of Ocean Shores. “You are asking us to, once again, to pay much more than our fair share.”
“It is my position that Grays Harbor County must collectively get your pencils and calculators out and make the serious cuts to continued operating costs and then, most importantly, accept to live within these cuts and budgets — period!” writes Frederick Smith of Ocean Shores.
“Balance your budget the old-fashioned way — cut spending,” wrote David and Sue Pierce of Ocean Shores.