County likely to skip road levy shift, tough budget choices coming

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners are going to try to do without an unpopular road levy shift that boosted property taxes of those within cities next year, but it will take some creative budget maneuvers to do it.

For 2014, county department heads and elected officials have requested more than $2 million in spending over this year’s spending levels. And that doesn’t include raises for employees, which are being negotiated with the county’s unions. Plus, revenues are expected to be down another half million dollars.

The county is expected to bring in $24.753 million in revenue next year. But there’s $27.753 million in budget requests from county departments. If the county commissioners were to approve all of the requests, the county’s $5.343 million in reserves for the operating budget would dwindle down to $2.752 million.

All three county commissioners say they want to continue the trend of a balanced budget and not dip into reserves.

At the same time, Commissioners Wes Cormier and Herb Welch say they don’t want to continue with another year of increased property taxes for those living within city limits. County Commissioner Frank Gordon says he’s not opposed to starting without the funds while preparing the budget.

The road levy shift, which took funds out of the county’s road fund and put it in the county’s general operating budget, raises $750,000 in revenue and had the inadvertent effect of lowering slightly the property tax levy of those in unincorporated areas and raising it slightly on those living within cities. Nearly every mayor on the Harbor has protested the budget move, put in place two years ago.

If the funds were continued, however, revenue would be $250,000 higher next year than planned.

The county’s budget does include a $350,000 payment Summit Pacific Medical Center owes the county for the final payment on the county’s old Oakhurst property. That’s where the new hospital now sits.

Budget Director Brenda Sherman cautioned the commissioners during a presentation Monday morning that they shouldn’t bank on those funds ever coming again. It’s a one-time payment.

The 2014 budget predictions are being overly pessimistic on the county’s sale of timber, budgeting for $500,000. This year, the county budgeted $528,344 and the actual amount coming could exceed $900,000 by the end of the year. Sherman is also budgeting a drop in license and permit fees by $104,000 and $175,720 less in grants.

Meantime, department heads and elected officials have seen lean times in recent years and many say they need more help.

Auditor Vern Spatz says he’s had times when it’s just him at the front counter because of vacations and sick times. He’s asking for a half-time position to help in the office as needed.

Public Services Director Kevin Varness is requesting a new maintenance position to work on projects that have been on hold for years. He also wants another planner in the Planning division.

Weed Coordinator Nancy Ness wants more hours and is requesting for her position to be boosted from a .4 (full-time equivalent employee) to .65 so she can get more work done — and benefits.

The District Court wants to restore a receptionist position left vacant this year. Treasurer Ron Strabbing has seen a backlog of work not get done and says he needs a new accounting manager position.

Sheriff Rick Scott wants a new public disclosure support specialist and two new corrections officers. He said the corrections staff could be funded by a litter grant as well as some mental health diversion funding. Plus, he wants a chunk of the county’s mental health/substance abuse sales tax dollars to pay for half of one of the positions.

Scott isn’t asking for a new deputy this year, although it remains something he’s requested in previous budgets.

Plus, salaries will be an issue again this year. Not only will the unions likely want cost of living adjustments for their members, but Coroner Dan Burns is again asking for a raise, noting he’s a full-time position and the lowest paid department head in the county. He also wants more money and hours for his staff.

The Superior Court judges want a raise for their new court administrator.

Prosecutor Stew Menefee, who retires at the end of the month, is asking for a raise for his deputy prosecutors to keep his young attorneys from bolting out the door to better paying jobs. Although it’s not officially in his budget, Menefee has made it clear that he needs more staff too, including another deputy prosecutor.

One thing the county commissioners did away with formally on Monday was any of the left-over cuts put into place last year by the former commissioners. The previous board of commissioners had implemented 3.5 percent across-the-board “contra entries.” That means that automatic cuts were not mandated, however, the commissioners told department heads to use the whole year to figure out how they wanted to cut their budgets. In May, the new commissioners reduced those contras to 1.75 percent across the board.

On Monday, they just did away with whatever was left over from departments like the Clerk’s Office, which declined to cut anymore because Clerk Cheryl Brown said there was no place left to cut.

Another $44,900 was added to the Auditor’s Office to pay for the county’s costs for the primary election, which weren’t budgeted last year.