Grays Harbor County Commissioner Terry Willis says that under her leadership, the county approved its first balanced budget that increased reserves in years. She said she’s proud of her accomplishments working with the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority and credits her skills in helping to ensure Mary’s River Lumber stayed put in Montesano, instead of leaving the county like the company was considering.
But during a meeting with The Daily World’s Editorial Board recently, Willis and her challenger Wes Cormier fielded questions on transparency with the county’s budget process, priorities in the office and communication issues with the county’s municipalities.
Willis said she felt some issues had been blown out of proportion, including her decision to hire her granddaughter for a summer works crew, an issue that has spurred debate over the county’s nepotism policy. Willis interviewed and then hired her granddaughter for an office job for the county’s summer work crew, a position that had to be created for her because she was 17 and not old enough to be a flagger.
“This is the type of stuff you can toss in the newspaper and people can latch on to it because it’s simple; people can wrap their heads around it and be opinionated on both sides one way or another,” Willis said. “Had you taken a Flood Authority issue or the Superior Court issue, people would not have been able to react to it. … My concern was not my political candidacy, my concern was doing the right thing at the right time and I felt it was the right thing.”
Willis said the “easy thing to do” would have been to hand off the application to one of her fellow commissioners. But she didn’t think about that because the county has had a nepotism policy in place since 2010 that allowed her to hire her granddaughter with no issues. “I didn’t think because we had a policy in place that this would have been a sticking point with people,” Willis said. “And in my own defense, there’s a lot of people who agree with how I did it, and I didn’t treat her different than anybody else.”
Cormier vowed to change the policy if he were voted into office.
“If I am elected … I will definitely re-write the code of conduct,” Cormier said. “I don’t think in a position of power should you be allowed to hire employees that are related to you.”
Willis, who has been the chair of the county commissioners for the past two years, is seeking her second term in office. Four years ago, she was elected as the very first female county commissioner in Grays Harbor’s nearly 150-year history. She’s a Democrat and, with her husband Greg, owns a farm on the Brady bottoms, where they often grow field corn for cattle.
Cormier, who lives near Elma, is a senior real estate appraiser in the Grays Harbor Assessor’s Office, where he’s worked since 2005. Before that, he worked as a relief staff member at the Grays Harbor Juvenile Detention Facility for four years. He’s a Republican and was the county coordinator for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.
During the primary election, Cormier beat Willis in the East County-dominated Commission District 1 primary election with 52.5 percent of the vote. The contest goes countywide for the General Election. Ballots are slated to be sent out on Oct. 17.
Should Cormier win, there would be a Republican majority on the county commission for the first time in its history.
“I think transparency is an issue with the county and we have to get people engaged,” Cormier said. “I want more evening meetings.”
Cormier also pledged to work more with the cities, who have complained that they’ve been out of the loop when the county takes actions.
“I disagree that somehow this has gotten more secretive,” Willis said, noting that this year the county will move its budget meetings so they can be taped and put on the Web.
“I think part of what the issues are with the mayors are that they not only dislike how they got the message but what the message is,” Willis said, explaining that the county has had to raise property taxes on the cities and re-negotiate contracts because of its financial situation.
Cormier criticized Willis for closing budget meetings with department heads, saying that all meetings related to the budget ought to be open to the public.
Willis said that the information shared with department heads is made public first and the meetings need to be closed to allow candid conversations.
The biggest issue Willis said the commissioners are facing this year is how to balance next year’s budget. The budget requests add up to $26.2 million, which is $2.4 million more than this year’s projected $23.8 million operating budget.
That means as the commissioners plan next year’s budget, they’ll have to find more revenue, dip into the county’s reserves or cut the budget requests down to size.
The reserves are also an issue. The county was budgeted to have $3.8 million at the end of the year, but now it’s looking more like $3.4 million.
Willis said that could be an issue with the State Auditor’s Office, which issued a finding to the county last year for not having enough in reserves. The county needs $4.4 million to meet the state’s criteria.
“The priority has always been safety and just basic general government and how we keep it together,” Willis said. “We will have real issues with revenue that is bouncing all over the place. Sales tax is dropping as we speak and has been for the past three months now.”
Willis said she’s not sure if the county will be able to go without the mandatory one-day-a-month layoffs that are in place today for some of the county’s employees.
Cormier said the county needs to help “push up the economy through incentives.” He said businesses should be able to go to one place to pay a fee or handle a permit and Grays Harbor should lead the way in that fashion for all businesses on the Harbor.
Cormier acknowledged that any kind of economic incentives are not likely to help right away.
“You have to prioritize,” he said. “You can’t have a blanket across-the-board cuts like the county’s been doing and that’s going to involve talking with department heads. Some departments that have budgets only of personnel maybe should take less cuts than other departments that could have more to lose.”
Cormier didn’t name any specific departments to address cuts and notes even his own Assessor’s Office probably couldn’t stand to lose much more, and may even need more money as it moves forward with the state’s mandated annual revaluation. “When you prioritize you put your mandates, your necessities, your state mandates just like we do for a home budget, so, at the end of the day, you decide you can’t afford this,” Cormier said.
Cormier said he did think the county ought to introduce incentives of like extending medical insurance to encourage employees to retire early in a bid to save the county money.
“There are a lot of people who are in that cusp of retirement and I think right now is a good time to offer that incentive to retire,” he said.
Willis pointed out that the commissioners did offer an early retirement incentive in 2009 and there were employees who took advantage of the situation. It may have saved the county in the long run, but it cost the county upfront to pay off sick and vacation pay.
”Payouts can run $20,000 to $30,000 plus the incentive on top of it,” Willis said.
Cormier said the county ought to be saving its “timber windfall” to pay for things like retirement incentives with a look at the county’s big picture rather than depending on it for operational expenses. Cormier said he would not be in support of a road levy shift, which this year ended up taking funds out of the county’s road fund and increased the property tax burden of those living within cities.
“It’s not an adequate way to solve the budget,” Cormier said.
“We will need to look at our budgets to see if that’s one of the tools in the tool box we will use,” Willis said.
Cormier said he has no problem allowing voters the decision to raise their own taxes, but he can’t see a scenario where he as a voter would approve it.
“Let the people of the county decide,” Cormier said.
Both Willis and Cormier say they support continued funding of security in the County Courthouse.
One budget mystery on the horizon is in any fallout from the judges’ lawsuit against the commissioners. The commissioners recently approved extra funds to sustain the Superior Court and the Juvenile Detention Center, but the debate over funding will continue into the 2013 budget.
Willis said she isn’t afraid to continue the legal battle to affirm the commissioners’ right to set the court budgets, but she hopes the matter gets settled, instead.
Cormier said if a resolution can’t be reached, he’d support fighting the judges in court, though he said it shouldn’t need to come to that.
”I think the cause of the problem was probably personalities,” Cormier said. “I can work with judges. I will bring an end to the lawsuit, which is the best-case scenario for everybody.”