County stands pat with 3.5 percent cut

MONTESANO — Grays Harbor Sheriff Rick Scott said he would have no choice but to reduce courthouse security just months after the attacks in the courthouse and eliminate the agency’s popular resident deputy program to comply with a 3.5 percent across-the-board cut expected to be implemented when the county commissioners approve their budget on Monday.

Many other department heads and elected officials are still trying to figure out what the cuts could mean to their offices. One big unknown is whether the commissioners will approve raises for county employees and where those funds would come from.

The county commissioners canceled budget meetings slated for Thursday and Friday, letting a tentative budget plan stand from earlier this week that cuts budgets by 3.5 percent across-the-board and implements an unpopular road levy shift raising property taxes on residents within city limits.

Both issues very well could generate comments when the commissioners meet to host a public hearing and vote on their budget at 2 p.m., Monday in the commissioner chambers at the County Administration Building in Montesano.

“I think we’re going to let the budget stand where it is now,” Commission Chairman Herb Welch said on Thursday. “It doesn’t take effect until the first of the year and if we really want to make changes we can do it before then or work on it next year. We don’t know what the Legislature is going to do and that could be devastating to us, but hopefully not.”

The tentative operating budget would actually add to the county’s reserves by $250,000, with $24.35 million in revenue and $24.1 million in expenditures. But just how much money the county is expected to have to start off next year is still in flux, depending on end-of-the-year balances. It could be $3.5 million or $4 million.

Instead of directing specific cuts, the commissioners directed their budget staff to create “contra entries” in each department’s budget. That means each elected official or department head can decide what to cut or, more importantly, when to direct cuts to their department.

Assessor Rick Hole says he’s still trying to figure out where the cuts would come from, noting his office is up against the wall right now trying to get out the annual revaluation process finished.

“The state wanted this done in June and here we are today just barely finishing it,” Hole said.

Auditor Vern Spatz said that he’s met with his staff and voluntary furloughs may be an option, but the bigger question is if his employees would be able to apply for unemployment benefits on those days. That would be a decision for the commissioners to work out with the state Employment Security department.

Teasurer Ron Strabbing said he’s not sure why the commissioners haven’t budgeted to close the County Administration Building again. The building’s been closed once a month this year.

“The only way our office can reduce our budget is through reducing labor,” Strabbing said.

Scott said if he waited to make the cuts until the middle of next year, it would just exacerbate the problem.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable with that and wouldn’t be doing my job as sheriff going into 2013 without having made clear to the community and the people of the Sheriff’s Department what a $350,000 cut would mean to this office,” Scott said.

He noted he’s already heard from residents on the North Beach in particular who are not happy that the resident deputy program is on the chopping block. Scott said he pointed the finger right back at the county commissioners.

“If the commissioners want to save the program, they can do that by adding $50,000 to my budget,” Scott said. “If these cuts go through, I really have no choice here but to eliminate the program because my goal here is to save jobs.”

Scott and other county offices had been facing a possible 5 percent cuts a few weeks ago. The commissioners scaled back those plans to bring the cuts down to 3.5 percent.

Because of that, Scott says he’s able to save the county’s drug task force from elimination. But he still has to find $326,791 in savings out of his office’s $9.6 million budget. The plan would be to eliminate a vacant deputy sheriff position, saving $100,000, eliminate the resident deputy program, saving $50,000, and scale back courthouse security costs by $174,000. That still leaves $2,791 to find, which Scott said he’ll work on as the year progresses.

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. Besides familiarity with their beat, the program also reduced wait times for residents in those outlying areas.

On Monday, the program proved especially useful when a business was broken into on Highway 101 north of Hoquiam. North Beach Resident Deputy Rob Wilson was able to recognize a suspect on surveillance video and deputies arrested the suspect at his home for burglary. That arrest likely wouldn’t have been as easy without the resident deputy program, Scott pointed out.

Eliminating the program means those officers would still be on the job, but they’d start their work day in Montesano.

The plan to reduce courthouse security comes just months after it was put in place. Security was added to the courthouse in March after the shooting of a deputy and stabbing of Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards. Since then, metal detectors and an X-ray machine were installed.

A company was contracted to provide up to four weapons screeners. A new deputy director of security was hired, as were three special courthouse security deputies.

The plan would be to reduce the number of contracted weapons screeners and eliminate two of the courthouse security deputies. One of those deputies has already resigned. Another would be laid off under the plan and Scott says he’s been keeping all of his employees and the judges up-to-date on the situation.

Scott said he would also like to see closed-circuit cameras installed in the courthouse, but the funding hasn’t been available.