County heads into budget meetings this week


MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners are convening special meetings this week to re-focus on 2013 budget talks and go over the impacts 5 percent across-the-board cuts could have on various departments.

The first public meeting focusing on next year’s cash-strapped operating budget will be at 9 a.m. Monday in the commission chambers at the County Administration Building in Montesano.

Meetings are also slated for 9 a.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday to work on balancing next year’s budget.

This will be the first time the commissioners will convene as a group to talk about the budget since their Oct. 29 meeting, when they asked elected officials and department heads to figure out how a 5 percent across-the-board cut could impact their departments.

Since that meeting, County Commission Chairwoman Terry Willis lost her re-election bid, which followed the primary loss of Commissioner Mike Wilson. With two lame-duck commissioners, it’s possible anything could happen with the budget, though there are no indications of major changes among the commissioners.

Willis says she doesn’t “plan to take the easy way out.”

“I have a job to finish,” she said on Friday.

County Commissioner-Elect Frank Gordon said last week that if he doesn’t like the budget the commissioners impose this year, he’ll help come up with an alternative when he comes into office in January.

At this point, the call for a 5 percent across-the-board cut proposal have generated a luke-warm response with some department heads and elected officials.

Sheriff Rick Scott says he met individually with commissioners last week to go over what the cuts could mean to his office.

“What I’m asking is they make no cuts, and if they do that they allow me to fall short of the 5 percent because to meet the entire amount would have catastrophic ramifications and force us to discontinue programs that would have an impact on other cities and cost us grant dollars,” Scott said on Friday.

Scott says a 5 percent cut could mean eliminating the residential deputy program, closing his front office twice a week and laying off two court deputies, as well as the reduction of two deputy positions — not filling a vacant deputy position created through promotions when Mike Whelan retired from his sheriff position and a voluntary retirement from the county’s head of the Grays Harbor Drug Taskforce. Without someone to lead the taskforce, it would mean eliminating the program — and the loss of grant dollars split between the prosecutor, sheriff and police agencies in Aberdeen and Hoquiam.

“I was asked to describe what a 5 percent cut would mean,” Scott emphasized. “That doesn’t mean this is what I want to do.”

Other elected officials have described what the cuts could mean to them — furloughs at District Court, a potential layoff of a half-time planner in Planning & Building, the loss of an educator position at the WSU Extension Office.

Prosecutor Stew Menefee recently submitted a plan to comply with a 5 percent cut that would have his deputy prosecutors taking 13 unpaid furlough days next year, although he’s worried some of his personnel may continue to bolt. He’s had deputy prosecutors leave his office with increasing speed to find better jobs elsewhere.

“The recommendation l am making is going to result in a substantial decrease in the services I can provide to the public and to our law enforcement gencies,” Menefee wrote to the commissioners. “Given the salary freezes and furloughs that have been imposed in the prior years, I am also concerned that our effort to develop and keep well-trained professional prosecutors and staff will be adversely impacted. This will also require me to prioritize the offenses that our office will handle, reduce services and cause a backlog in our cases.”

The numbers

Commissioner Willis says her goal is to craft a budget where expenditures match revenues. The county is expected to receive $23.5 million in revenue next year. Willis said she’s asked the budget staff to be extra vigilant to ensure that tax revenues that come in are “on the realistic side” and not wildly out of proportion.

“Now is the time for us to look at all of the options and make some decisions,” Willis said.

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. Reserves would be between $3.5 million and $4 million — the exact amount is still up in the air, according to budget numbers released last Monday.

Auditor Vern Spatz urged the commissioners to hold off on doing massive cuts that could end up cutting services to the public.

“There are improvements looming in our economy that should help the county at the end of the next year,” Spatz wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “If there was ever a time to use our cash reserves to preserve the functions of local government, this is that time. I recommend we lower our cash reserve goal for next year — not abandon it — and use the balance to continue services.”

Clerk Cheryl Brown told the commissioners that they ought to consider re-imposing the road levy shift and do it at a greater rate in order to save county services. The tax shift lowered property tax amounts for residents within the unincorporated areas of the county, but raised it higher for residents within the cities. The move gave the county an extra $750,000 this year but must be re-approved next year.

“How do you justify a levy shift to cover the out-of-balance budget when you are reducing staffing and services to the county as a whole?” Brown wrote in a letter to the commissioners. “Why are some county residents asked to pay more for services that are really being reduced? It does not make sense. If anything we should increase the levy shift and give all the residents of our county full services until the county can balance its budget with its revenue. I know this is not a popular answer to the budget problem, but shutting down county departments does nothing for our residents or employees.”

Online:

Monday’s meeting will be webcast at http://www.co.grays-harbor.wa.us/gh_minutes/AVArchives.asp