County looks to make cuts

PORT ORCHARD — The Kitsap County Commissioners took the question of budget cuts to the next level this week, repeating the assertion that a voter-approved tax increase would be necessary in order to maintain current service levels.

“In order to provide the same level of service, we will need to go to the voters so they can vote to pay for the things that they cannot do without,” said South Kitsap Commissioner Jan Angel.

Added Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown, “When the amount that we’re allowed to raise property taxes does not keep up with inflation, it’s hard to maintain the same service levels.”

The commissioners will continue budget discussions today and have scheduled a meeting with all elected officials at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

At that time, all departments will need to suggest areas in which they can cut costs. The total needed cuts are $4 million for 2008 and at least $2 million during the following year.

The county has also written letters to 11 local agencies that receive county funding, requesting the groups not ask for more than they absolutely need.

After meeting with Administrative Services Director Ben Holland on Monday, the commissioners decided to work toward submitting a tax increase to voters in 2009. Prior to that, the county intends to cut visible services so residents know exactly what they are losing. The idea is to demonstrate in a personal sense why voters need to support a tax increase.

“No one takes any action unless there is a hole in the road in front of their house that doesn’t get fixed,” Angel said.

The county government feels residents do not actually believe in a budget crunch, and the deficit needs to be demonstrated: What happens when parks are not open or maintained? When roads are not fixed? When it takes 15 minutes instead of five to get a license renewed?

In the meantime, there are several line items for which simple reduction does not apply. Cut funding for drug court, for instance, and it will lead to a corresponding increase in other law enforcement costs. Decrease police response time, and criminals will know it’s safe to hit certain areas.

At Monday’s meeting, Angel suggested examining the $50,000 county lobbyist position. But this would be deemed worthwhile if the lobbyist’s actions brought $500,000 in state revenue.

The reasons for the budget crisis are not so simple. Voter-approved measures limiting car tab costs, and property tax increases made an immediate impact on the county’s budget.

Instead of immediately implementing cuts that reflected the lost revenue, the county sought to provide the same services for less money. Stretching the budget in this way tapped the reserves and led to an increased deficit.

“We should have made cuts immediately,” Angel said. “Then the voters would have gotten the message and connected the vote with a decrease in services.”

During the last budget crunch, the county froze director’s salaries and increased Department of Community Development permit fees — a move supported by the development community. This backfired when DCD cut personnel, which resulted in increased fees that led to decreased service. The developers then rebelled.

As a cost-cutting measure, the county now favors converting DCD to an “enterprise” system. Here, all the fees it generates will go back into supporting the department and disassociate itself from the general fund. This would make DCD self-supporting.

“A lot of counties are doing this, and it works,” said DCD Director Larry Keeton.

The second department to reflect the most visible change is Parks and Recreation. It attracts the idea of cuts simply because its function is discretionary, even as it is cited as a large factor in the public’s perception of local quality of life.

Here, the county is behind other facilities in charging for rental and usage fees.

“Bremerton and other municipalities charge for things that we give away for free,” said County Administrator Nancy Buonnano Grennan.

Instead of stretching funds to cover programs the commissioners are looking to make more decisive reductions.

“We can’t make invisible cuts,” said North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer. “We don’t want to disappoint people, so we just cut the quality of some programs. Instead we need to just stop doing some things so they notice they are gone. The change needs to be visible.”

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