County stares down 2013 budget


MONTESANO — If the Grays Harbor County commissioners approved their preliminary 2013 operating budget as is — with everything department heads and elected officials want and before the commissioners have whittled away at it — by the end of next year the county would probably be left with about $800,000 in reserves, not even enough to cover half of the county’s monthly payroll.

That’s a far cry from the $4.4 million the state Auditor’s Office wants the commissioners to have in reserve, enough to cover two months of county expenses.

Budget Director Brenda Sherman outlined the numbers as the commissioners opened their budget hearings Tuesday morning.

This year, the county has a $23.6 million operating budget. Sherman is already predicting a $1.1 million drop in revenue for 2013, the result of taking in less in property taxes, sales taxes, court fines, fees and permits. The county also balanced its budget this year by using nearly half a million dollars from a one-time payment when the county sold land to Mark Reed Hospital in Elma for its new hospital. Those funds won’t be there next year.

Sherman said the county’s budget outlook is already worse than she originally predicted in her budget documents. She had expected the county to end the current calendar year with $4 million in reserve, which is what is printed in all of the budget documents. She said Tuesday that $3.4 million is more realistic, based on increased funding given to the courts, as well as added courthouse security.

Sherman reminded commissioners that the state Auditor’s Office issued a “finding” a year ago, contending the county was not doing a good enough job building reserves and depended too much on interfund loans. Sherman notes that the current budget does not include interfund loans, but some tough decisions are ahead for the commissioners on what they should do about reserves.

A property tax increase is also not out of the question to help the bottom line. Sherman is not budgeting the $750,000 in revenue the county received through a road levy shift that boosted property taxes this year for those who live within city limits. Those who live in the county actually saw their taxes go down because of the budget move. All three county commissioners have said the road levy shift may still be on the table, although no decisions have been made.

Also not included in the budget right now are potential raises for employees. For instance, on Tuesday, Coroner Dan Burns asked for raises for himself and his staff, saying they’ve gone without raises for years and his deputy coroners are part-time without benefits. Many elected officials and exempt staff are in the same boat. Union employees are also in the midst of bargaining with the commissioners. The proposed budget does include “step” raises for longevity and experience and raises for employees who have contracts with the county.

Plus, due to new caseload limits implemented by the state Supreme Court, indigent defense contracts are likely to put further strain on the budget, doubling from $990,466 today to more than $1.8 million next year.

The preliminary budget also restores all of the county’s employees to full-time. The commissioners had been using a temporary layoff provision in the union contract to lay off employees one day a month. That worked out to about a 3 percent pay cut because many of the employees applied for partial unemployment benefits to restore some of their wages.

Even if it wasn’t in the preliminary budget, the building closures may make a comeback, commissioners have said.

County Auditor Vern Spatz spoke against that concept on Tuesday, providing a list that shows that just 49 employees out of the county’s 391 employees are being forced to take a pay cut.

Commissioner Mike Wilson noted that Spatz included dozens of employees paid out of other funds.

“I did that on purpose because we’re all part of the same family,” Spatz said.

“Only 12 of our employees took pay cuts,” Spatz told the commissioners. “The burden is uneven, not equitable and although it looks good that we’re doing furlough days, it’s misinformation because the county is not doing furlough days, just 12 percent of our people are and 88 percent are not.”

And most employees at the courthouse and County Administration Building haven’t received a raise since 2009, he said.

“Even with the same paycheck now that they got in 2009, they wouldn’t be able to buy the same goods and services they got back in 2009 so they are slowly losing ground due to inflation for the employees that are here that were getting the same wages as three years ago,” Spatz told the commissioners.

BUDGET PROCESS

The county has scheduled several weeks worth of meetings with department heads to hash out the details of the budget.

County Commission Chairwoman Terry Willis says she’s trying something different in the budget process.

In years past, the commission would host more than a dozen public meetings with all three commissioners and each department. Those meetings would be recorded via an audio recorder and minutes taken.

The new process has the commissioners conduct three special meetings with all three commissioners. Those meetings, including the one on Tuesday, are taped by the county’s Web video recording service and posted online.

However, an individual commissioner will now meet separately with department heads or elected officials to go over details of the budget process. Those meetings will be open to the public, Willis said. For instance, Wilson will meet with the Superior Court judges at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday and Willis will meet with the sheriff next Wednesday at 2 p.m.

However, no minutes will be taken and the county will not record the meetings.

Willis said it became too burdensome for commission staff to take minutes during the budget hearings, sometimes not transcribing all of the audio until six months had gone by. If two commissioners were at a meeting, Willis explained, that would constitute a quorum and then they would have to take extensive minutes.

Explaining her reasons for not recording the meetings, Willis said she didn’t want to bog down the county’s Web camera archives with minutia.

Willis said that each separate commissioner will then communicate department goals with each other as they discuss budget priorities.

“If there’s a complicated process, we may bring people back and those meetings will be recorded,” Willis said, noting the public defense issue may warrant its own special meeting.

Auditor Spatz objected to the process.

“Even with the best of intentions and communication skills, a detailed discussion will be summarized based on the perceptions of what the single commissioner hears, the understanding of what that commissioner believes I said and the bias, intentional or not, of what I am saying,” Spatz said. “It is similar to the children’s game where one whispers a secret that is passed from one child to another, then (we see) how much it has changed when (by the time) it gets to the last participant.”