Thurston County Commissioners blocked out two afternoons and evenings this week to take public comment on the proposed nearly $330 million budget for 2016.
Several of the sessions went by without any public comment. Overall, about a dozen people spoke, most during Tuesday night’s hearing.
All three county commissioners said they liked the new format — which featured four daytime sessions devoted to specific subjects with elected officials and department heads available for questions — as well as two evening sessions for testimony on any budget item.
But they weren’t happy with the turnout.
“We had very little public participation from what I would hope we would get,” Commission Chairwoman Cathy Wolfe said.
About $93.1 million of the budget is the county’s general fund, which is directly overseen by the commissioners. Most of the county’s 18 departments received enough funding to continue the same level of services they provided in 2015, officials say.
“We would love to do more, but we have to live within our means,” County Commissioner Sandra Romero said.
Jon Pettit, a Rich Road resident who frequently comments on Thurston County Commission business, provided testimony at several of the budget sessions.
He said he studied the county’s 242-page budget book closely because “there’s no one fighting for the interest of the people.”
During Monday’s hearings, Pettit said he’d like the commission to fund more of the requests that were submitted by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have enough money,” he said. “We just need to prioritize it right.”
During Tuesday evening’s hearing, Rainier resident Susie Kyle criticized the county for using $338,000 to increase staffing in the land use and permitting department and add more building inspectors and staff to help do reviews required by the pocket gopher Habitat Conservation Plan. She believes that money could have gone to fund some of the requests by the Sheriff’s Office or the Assessor’s Office.
“My question is: Is Thurston County more concerned about public safety or counting gophers?” Kyle said. “…Something needs to change. We need less government, not more government.”
Joshua Deal, government affairs director for Olympia Master Builders, which is suing Thurston County over the gopher review process, also spoke at one of the hearings.
“We’re curious about how this budget factors in the decrease in permitting fees that are being paid because that (gopher review) delay in permitting time is going to cause significant decreases in permitting fees,” he said.
The commissioners asked Cynthia Wilson, interim director of Resource Stewardship, to respond to Deal’s question. She said her department plans to add staff to process applications quicker. She said they are looking to fill some positions with people who have “expertise in prairies and gophers that may be able to clear some of those a little bit earlier.”
Sheriff John Snaza said he was unhappy with the budget process, the hearing schedule and the amount of funding that’s been proposed for his office in 2016.
“What I hated about it (the process) was that it was too simplistic, and it really didn’t detail what the Sheriff’s Office really looks like, or what it reflects,” Snaza said. “…I am not happy about the budget for public safety. They’re just giving me money that they took away in 2013.”
Assessor Steven Drew said he was profoundly disappointed in the process. He said he didn’t get any of his budget requests.
“My office has been cut to the bone and you have offered zero in support of the wave of new construction and new development work that must flow through my office,” Drew wrote in a letter that he presented to the commission on Monday. “...If you have made poor choices, then I am asking you to correct them, and if we have a funding problem, then I am asking you to address funding without future delay. The status quo simply cannot continue.”
It was the first county budget for commissioner Bud Blake, who was elected in 2014. He said he thought the process went well, and he hopes the county will soon allow residents to provide public comment at its public hearings via FaceTime or another type of video-conferencing program.
“More exciting, I think, is when we go to a biennium budget in 2017,” Blake added. “We’re going to move in that direction.”