By JESSIE STENSLAND
WHIDBEY NEWS TIMES
Island County commissioners spread the pain around in identifying preliminary budget cuts this week to solve a $1.2 million deficit, but now they are taking heat from law-and-justice officials.
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown has taken the fight to the people with an open letter to the citizens.
“I am convinced that our county commissioners have been unable to realize what our citizens and my employees already know; law and justice are the most essential functions of government which is mandated by law and should not be competing for funding with non-mandated entities or organizations,” Brown wrote.
Nevertheless, it appears that the sheriff will be able to avoid laying off deputies.
Nearly all of the county departments that receive current expense funds, except the jail and the smallest departments with nothing much left to reduce, were hit with cuts under the proposal. The majority of departments were cut by 4 percent, while most law-and-justice departments were hit with 4.5 percent reductions.
The arguments over the budget problems have centered on the issue of mandated versus non-mandated services. Services such as law enforcement and tax collection are considered mandated under state law, while programs like parks, senior services and WSU Extension are more discretionary. Some officials feel that the county has no business funding the non-mandated programs at the expense of core services during tough economic times.
On the other side, the commissioners have made large cuts in most of the non-mandated programs, but they refused to do away with their support altogether in order to protect the most vulnerable and the long-term quality of life in the county.
The sheriff’s office, the prosecutor and the patrol deputies’ guild reacted Wednesday to the budget reductions with statements criticizing the decision.
“The board has clearly expressed its preference for using taxes to fund non-governmental functions over those that can only be performed by government,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks wrote.
Then on Thursday, the county commissioners responded with a press release defending the budget.
“Looking back at what will soon be a total of $5.2 million worth of cuts over two years, the county has protected public safety and law enforcement, which, to this point, was cut the least,” the commissioners wrote.
In an interview, Dean said the sheriff, prosecutor, courts and juvenile courts were hit with 4.5 percent reductions this time around because they were cut the least in two other rounds of budgeting chopping in the last year. County funding to WSU Extension, for example, was cut in half. Including the current reductions, the commissioners will have cut a total of $5.2 million from the $22 million current expense budget over the last year because of the recessionary impacts.
Before cutting, the commissioners halved the $1.2 million deficit by using $200,000 in reserve funds, changing to an accounting method that reimburses the general fund at a high level, and transferring an additional $100,000 in road funds to the sheriff’s office.
The remaining $630,000 deficit will have to come from cuts. The reductions could mean up to 15 full-time positions would be lost countywide if officials balance the books solely in slashing wages and benefits.
“I’m pretty certain we are going to get around cutting that many people,” Dean said.
While most departments are facing a 4 or 4.5 percent cut, three funds were reduced by much more. The contracted animal control officers and the animal shelters run by Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation were cut by 10 percent. Senior services was cut by 12 percent. The fund for the impaired driving panels was reduced by 60 percent.
In response to the sheriff’s letter, Dean said he’s confident the budget reduction won’t affect the safety of residents.
“I’m 99 percent sure the sheriff will come up with a way that will avoid cutting deputies,” he said. “The sheriff is a genius at finding ways to make it work.”
Indeed, Brown agreed Thursday that he should be able find a way to cut expenses without laying off deputies. The 4.5 percent reduction in the sheriff’s department was only applied to the cost of salary and benefits, which amounts to $188,500. The jail avoided any reductions at all.
But while deputies may not face layoffs, Undersheriff Kelly Mauck said one idea under consideration is to cut the Dave Hollet’s position as director of emergency management, which is within the sheriff’s office. A deputy could take on his responsibilities.
Also, Mauck said they may reduce the staff in the records and civil division, as well as controlling costs for overtime and gas.
“It’s better to let paperwork pile up then to slow down a deputy’s response to 911 calls,” he said.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said his department is penciled in to lose $58,000. He said he may ultimately have to lay off a deputy prosecutor, though he has a six-month “grace period” before a cut must be made because a federal stimulus grant funds a position.
Banks and Brown were among the six elected officials who presented the commissioners with a letter demanding that they take certain actions to balance the budget, including cutting funds to all non-mandated services first. Dean said the letter didn’t fall on deaf ears, but he felt couldn’t slash Meals For Wheels and such programs that offer a lifeline to the most vulnerable.
“As a draft, I think this is the most responsible thing we can do ...” he said. “This is the best we can do. I think this holds us together.”
But the law and justice officials argued that he’s missing the point. Simply put, Mauck said the non-mandated programs won’t go away if the county funding is stripped. The programs have other sources of funding and options for generating more revenues. While the commissioners cut the county’s contribution to senior services by 12 percent, it’s only an overall 2.4 percent reduction to the agency’s bottom line.
“We know that this is not easy for the non-governmental groups and the holders of the private contracts. The bottom line is we need to get back to the basics and provide the core services that are required by law,” Darren Crownover, president of the patrol deputy’s guild, wrote in a letter to the commissioners.
Though the preliminary cuts have been made, the discussion is sure to continue. A meeting to discuss the budget with county employees is set for 4:45 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 30.
This article was originally published in the Whidbey News Times on November 20, 2009.
Jessie Stensland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.