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County budget in home stretch

The Kitsap County commissioners continue to espouse austerity, while those whose budgets are affected by latest reductions make the case for the necessity of their particular service.

The commissioners held a public hearing about its 2010 budget on Monday night, using the opportunity to again explain budget issues while encouraging public comment about the latest iteration of the 2010 financial plan.

“We’ve been able to do some really good things with limited funds,” South Kitsap Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said. “Every county employee has contributed in some way to rescue the budget and make sacrifices and get us to the point where we can provide services with a reduced budget.”

The final numbers, which will be addressed at the Dec. 14 commissioners’ meeting, added up to a total preliminary budget of $315.9 million, or 3.5 percent less than last year’s budget.

The general fund, the portion of the budget that governs operations, showed a $5.8 million (6.5 percent) decrease.

“Making do with less” was the evening’s theme, with the commissioners repeating mantra of how they must live within their means and use diminishing resources to provide expected services.

Aside from input from elected officials and department heads, there was only a smattering of public comments.

“I had hoped for more interest,” said Interim Budget Manager Susanne Yost, who presented the numbers. “But all those who testified will be contacted to provide additional information, if necessary.”

“Everything is going to take longer,” said Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown. “The question is how much longer people are willing to wait for these services. There are several mandates we have to support. We need to run elections, and we need to run the court calendar. But everything will proceed at a slower pace.”

During Monday night’s meeting, the commissioners called the county’s elected officials to the podium to talk about how they have been affected by the cuts.

All electeds were present, aside from Coroner Greg Sandstrom and Prosecutor Russ Hauge.

Members of the public and department heads also threw in their two cents, which by the end of the evening was worth about a cent and a half.

“We have tried a number of ways to cut costs without reducing customer services,” said Auditor Walt Washington. “I’m not sure where they will feel the pain; we will see longer lines for people waiting for deed recording and licensing.”

Treasurer Barbara Stephenson discussed the impact of one of the most substantial budget-cutting measures, the Friday closure.

“It was a good thing we started the building closures in May because it allowed us to get through collecting the April property taxes,” she said. “But in October, anyone who tried to pay their taxes at the last minute felt the pinch, since they came down to the courthouse with a check and the building was closed.”

This year, the Oct. 30 tax deadline fell on a Friday, which stymied the procrastinators. Those who make a habit of this behavior need to be prepared, since the next tax deadline of April 30, 2010 is also on Friday.

Law and Justice accounts for the largest percentage of the budget, adding up to $56.7 million or 71 percent of the total.

The protectors of these funds, Hauge and Sheriff Steve Boyer, have been the most vocal in protecting their budgets.

After much resistance, Hauge submitted a plan tow weeks ago that cut several attorneys and staff while instituting a “cookbook” that prescribes automatic punishment for qualifying offenders in order to save court costs.

The new budget seems to put some items back, for instance the funding of three deputies with money transferred from the veterans’ relief fund. But that doesn’t put the process in the clear.

“We still have the jackass that uses a 2-year-old kid’s head as a basketball and needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Boyer said. “But one of these days I will have to look a parent in the eye after we have failed to protect their family and say, ‘We did the best we could.’”

In response, Veterans Committee Chairman Fred Sheffler spoke against cuts to veterans’ programs, saying that demands in this area have exceeded projections, and that, “Our costs are increasing it would be a really bad idea to zero out these programs at that time.”

State Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor) also implored the commissioners to keep veterans’ programs in place, arguing the funds could be supported through “creative financing” that would not adversely affect the general fund.

He offered to set up a meeting between the commissioners and the Veteran Affairs Commission to discuss options.

Brown said he would participate in such a meeting, but felt the system needs to be changed before the problem can be solved.

“I appreciate Rep. Seaquist’s remarks,” he said, “but I think he could help us provide a legislative solution to this. The veterans’ fund is linked to the general fund, and if we were given the flexibility to separate them, we wouldn’t need to make these choices between funding veterans’ programs and hiring deputies.”

Some of those present used the situation to support their own preconceived notions. Seaquist said the lean budget was exacerbated by spiraling healthcare costs, saying, “The increasing cost of providing benefits is the single most important number that proves why a comprehensive healthcare program is so important. Working four-day weeks means the risk of exposure goes down so the costs should decrease rather than go up.”

Port Orchard resident Vivian Henderson suggested the shortfall in the veterans line item should be balanced with the abolition of the “1 percent for arts” fund.

“I am a fan of art,” Henderson said. “My husband and I buy art when we can afford it. When we cannot afford, it we do not buy art. I think the county shouldn’t buy any art at this time, since we really can’t afford it now.”

Henderson’s criticism of the state-mandated “1 Percent for Art” program is nothing new, since she has spoken out against the requirement for new public building to so spend 1 percent of the cost of a new building for art and sculpture.

This can be a substantial amount, since a $25 million building would get $250,000 for its decoration.

The results of this program can be observed throughout the county administration building, which opened in 2006.

However, the county has not expended much in this area over the last few years, with the only 2010 expenditure shown as about $16,000 for the new coroner’s facility in Bremerton.

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