County OKs budget that gives workers 2 percent raises, includes levy shift

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners approved a $24.3 million operating budget on Monday, the second year in a row for a balanced budget that actually has the potential to pad the county’s reserves.

The budget does include an unpopular road levy shift that raises property taxes on residents within city limits and has been condemned by several city councils and nearly every mayor across the Harbor. The shift, which was in effect this year and needed commission approval to be levied on property tax in 2013, means an additional $750,000 in revenue to the county.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes returned to the commissioners on Monday to re-iterate the position shared by the mayors.

“The point is we did not even raise taxes in our city 1 percent, which would have given $6,000 to us, yet you are going to pass a unilateral tax that would raise taxes on our residents $37,000,” Estes told the commissioners. “That’s a slap in the face to our residents.”

“Rest assured, the commissioners will start right off to make sure the road levy shift doesn’t happen again,” newly-installed Commission Chairman Herb Welch said. Welch said he was “reluctantly” voting with fellow Commissioners Terry Willis and Mike Wilson in favor of the levy shift.

Willis said that without the shift, the county very well would have had to lay off another 15 people, which she said was an unreasonable hit to the county, which has laid off about 70 people over the past few years.

Besides the road levy shift, the budget contains a 3.5 percent across-the-board cut and the commissioners have given elected officials and department heads a full year to figure out how to implement the cuts. If some elected officials choose not to cut, then the next Board of County Commissioners will have to figure out what happens next.

The biggest change between the budget proposed last week and the final version is the tentative approval of 2 percent raises for nearly every county employee. That will cost the county an extra $242,242 out of the general fund and $206,466 out of other, miscellaneous funds, such as the Roads fund.

The budget now includes $24.333 million in expenditures, with $17.9 million made up of salaries and benefits. It projects $24.374 million in revenues. The plan would leave $4.043 million in reserves. Budget Director Brenda Sherman reported to the commissioners that the county currently has $5.5 million in the bank, but those figures could go down to as little as $4 million by the time the final bills are tallied at the end of the month.

Auditor Vern Spatz said the commissioners had not shared where those raises would come from.

During the meeting, Willis affirmed that the raises come out of the county’s potential reserves and each department would see a benefit, but not have to deal with the cost.

Prosecutor Stew Menefee told the commissioners he had a “very hard discussion” with his staff about potential furloughs they would need to take to come up with his office’s 3.5 percent cut next year.

“And there was a great deal of skepticism about the county’s budgeting process from those employees,” Menefee said. “And, at the time, I was assuring them that we needed to take these cuts seriously. And, about three weeks later, they got 2 percent raises. And, quite frankly, it was a very contradictory message to send to department heads to talk about tyring to get people to do furloughs and lay off people and the next thing we know there’s 2 percent increases in salaries. I think the board needs to be concerned about that because, quite frankly, the credibility of the whole budgeting process is called into question.”

Willis, who was the chief budget writer, said that “taking care of one’s employees is the cost of doing business.”

Willis noted that many employees have seen a reduction in pay lately, and some have even been forced to take full days off without pay to help the county’s budget over the past few years. And, with the costs of things going up, “our employees’ buying power has been rolling backward.”

The budget includes 2 percent for all county employees, including non-contracted exempt employees, who haven’t seen a raise in several years. The only group that didn’t get raises was the elected officials. Sheriff Rick Scott had made a case for a personal increase to his own salary, noting he took a pay cut from his role as undersheriff to taking the job as Sheriff. And Coroner Dan Burns had also made a case for a raise, noting he’s the lowest paid head of a county office. Those arguments didn’t hold water with the commissioners, though. Willis said that sometimes there are winners and losers to budgets, “It is what it is,” she said.