New construction picked up; people spent more money on big ticket items like vehicles; and a portion of new taxes from legalized marijuana are combining to create modest revenue gains for Thurston County’s coffers for 2016.
But the cost of doing government also continues to rise, and that’s why officials say they’re proposing a “maintenance level” budget for most of the county’s 18 departments and offices.
“This is a living-within-our-means budget,” County Manager Cliff Moore said.
The Board of County Commissioners will take feedback on the proposed nearly $330 million budget during a series of public hearings Monday and Tuesday. About $93.07 million of the budget is the county’s general fund, which is directly overseen by the commissioners.
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Built into the spending plan are several new initiatives, several of which are tied to grants or new funding, including fees, officials say.
Commissioners received about $12 million in additional budget requests for 2016, Chairwoman Cathy Wolfe said.
“We only had about $800,000 (beyond the maintenance level spending amounts) that we felt we could possibly part with and be sound, fiscally,” she said. “… We had to make some pretty painful decisions.”
It’s the third year the board has grappled with tough budget decisions.
County officials cut more than $5 million in spending in 2014. Last year, the commissioners approved a “budget freeze” where elected leaders and department heads were asked to create spending plans with the same funding levels as 2014.
For 2016, the preliminary budget gives most departments and offices enough funding to continue the same level of services they provided in 2015, Moore said.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
The county funds 1,025 full-time equivalent positions; the proposed budget would add the equivalent of 27 FTEs to the county payroll. The budget also includes a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment in salaries for current employees, budget and fiscal manager Robin Campbell said.
The overall budget enhancements include:
▪ $604,000 to pay for five additional Sheriff’s deputies, and $123,000 to pay for a Sheriff’s deputy to provide security at Family and Juvenile Court.
▪ $500,000 for the county Auditor’s Office to assist with ballot processing and other work related to the 2016 presidential election. A large portion of those costs will be paid by the state, Campbell said.
▪ $26,000 to pay for a reverse emergency alert system that sends 911 calls to homes and cellphones in emergencies. Thurston County would join a consortium of several South Sound cities and counties that use the alert system, Moore said.
▪ $330,000 to establish an Office of Pretrial Services.
“It will be five people — we currently have three — who work with inmates who are newly arrested, and we figure out what they really need, what an appropriate course is, do they really need to go into the jail,” Campbell said.
These staffers will help determine when a person needs adjusted medication levels, for example, or could best be served with in-home monitoring.
“It’s an approach that we think will ultimately lead to some costs savings, especially in keeping folks out of jail,” Moore said. “But it will also really lead to better outcomes for folks who have interaction with the criminal justice system while not in any way jeopardizing public safety.”
▪ $6.5 million for mental health and chemical dependency treatment, including use of a grant to build a 10-bed triage facility that gives people who are in crisis, who are picked up on the street, a place to stabilize, Moore said.
“That keeps people out of the criminal justice center and on a better path towards treatment,” he said.
▪ $600,000 to begin a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. It would be paid for with behavioral health funding, not through the general fund.
“We’re going to have law enforcement officers and mental health counselors paired up in our downtown area, and rather than arresting someone, we’re going to be assessing what services they need and hooking them up to services,” Campbell said.
▪ Funding to pay for a social worker in the Nisqually Tribal Jail to assist Thurston County residents with services they might need, such as housing. Similar services are being increased at the Thurston County jail, Campbell said.
▪ $715,000 of additional funding for the Office of Assigned Counsel to make sure public defenders stay under the the maximum caseloads allowed by law.
▪ $34,000 to the Board of Equalization for additional staff time to address a backlog of orders.
▪ $375,000 to develop the county’s comprehensive plan.
▪ $338,000 to increase staffing in the land use and permitting department, and add more building inspectors and staff to help do the reviews necessary under the pocket gopher Habitat Conservation Plan.
▪ $3.5 million in Public Works roads projects.
“The focus at this moment is really maintaining the structures and roadways we currently have,” Moore said.
LEADERS WEIGH IN
Some elected leaders say the proposed general fund budget isn’t good enough.
For example, the budget provides funding for five additional deputies, but Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza said that simply replaces positions that were funded in 2013, then later cut.
“It’s good to get something back that I lost two years ago,” he said. “… I’m excited about the five positions, but we’re still the lowest staffed sheriff’s office (per capita) in the state of Washington.”
Snaza asked for seven other law enforcement positions, including a county crime analyst, but none of those positions was approved.
For corrections, Snaza said the ARC’s current staffing formula has generated some issues that will need to be addressed in 2016.
“We’ve had 11 grievances filed against the Sheriff’s Office in two and a half months,” he said. “I believe the main issue is staffing.”
Thurston County Treasurer Shawn Myers said she requested money to pay for an entry-level customer service worker to help with the growing number of property transfers from increased home sales. A portion of the position would be compensated through a state fee collected on certain records, she said.
“I have two and a half people and when one is on vacation, and one calls in sick, I shift other resources including myself to customer service,” Myers said. “… We’re just shorthanded.”
She wrote a letter to the commissioners urging them to reconsider her request.
“I’ve never requested anything until this year,” Myers said. “For five years I’ve gone without asking for a thing.”
Thurston County Assessor Steven Drew said he is profoundly disappointed in the budget process. He said he requested $65,000 for temporary or part-time staff positions to help his office stay on schedule, as well as money to be set aside for a technological upgrade in a few years and $22,000 to build an office space that allows a manager or worker to see the front counter if they have to step away to meet with an employee or customer.
“We didn’t get any of our budget requests,” Drew said. “They were all denied, and they’re all vital. I don’t think I was listened to, and I don’t think (the budget process) went well.”
However, Thurston County Clerk Linda Myhre Enlow said she thought the budget process was fairly straight forward, and she was fine with the outcome.
The proposed budget includes funding for a new position in her office: A guardianship facilitator who will assist with paperwork in guardianship cases. The position is tied to a new state law, Enlow said, and her office has proposed helping fund the position through a new fee.
There are new fees proposed in other county departments as well. Superior Court has proposed collecting an arbitration fee, and the county wants to increase its rates for noxious weed control.
To help free up some cash for the 2016 budget, commissioners reduced contributions to the county’s building reserve and maintenance fund, which is used to pay for new roofs and other major building repairs, Campbell, the county’s budget and fiscal manager, said.
“Right now, the building reserve is sitting at about $17 million,” she said.
Commissioners agreed to reduce contributions to the building reserve by about 80 percent for 2016.
The county also received about $118,000 in new revenue from the state because of legal marijuana sales.
“Which we think is a fraction (of what’s available in taxes),” Moore said. “… We still have some questions about whether the distribution between the state and local jurisdictions is the appropriate split. We think it should be higher for local jurisdictions.”
The county experienced a 7 percent growth in its sales tax, thanks largely to automobile purchases, Campbell said.
“We don’t expect it to continue to grow at that rate next year,” she said.
The county’s 1 percent tax increase on current property and new building structures “was the main source of revenue growth.” The county expects to see $929,000 more in its general fund, and $960,000 in its other funds.
But revenues don’t come close to levels the county had a few years ago, and departments and offices still are trying to adjust their spending levels accordingly, Moore said.
“Construction in Thurston County in 2007 was a billion-dollar business,” he said. “The last few years it was $290 million to $300 million. After the Great Recession, we’re still trying to figure out where that new normal is.”
Have your say
The Thurston County Commission will hold public hearings Monday and Tuesday to take comment on the proposed 2016 budget. The hearings — which will be in Room 280 of the Thurston County Courthouse Building 1, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. SW, Olympia — are organized by topic, and elected officials and department heads will be available to answer questions.
Here’s the schedule:
1:30 p.m. Monday: Law and justice budget hearing with the Thurston County clerk; superior, juvenile and district courts; prosecuting attorney; sheriff; and assigned counsel represented.
4 p.m. Monday: General Governance budget hearing with the county assessor, auditor, commissioners, treasurer, human resources and central services personnel.
6 p.m. Monday: Public hearing will be open to any budget topic.
1:30 p.m. Tuesday: Transportation, environment and land use budget hearing with representatives of the resource stewardship and public works departments.
4 p.m. Tuesday: Heath and human services budget hearing will highlight the coroner, public health and social services, and emergency services representatives.
6 p.m. Tuesday: Public hearing will be open to any budget topic.
To view a copy of the proposed budget, go to co.thurston.wa.us/bocc/budget.