Residents fear service cuts

Residents urged county commissioners Monday evening to reconsider proposed cuts to programs and services, saying the short-term financial gain is outweighed by the devastating long-term effects to those who rely on them.

County leaders announced a second round of reductions last month to close a projected $5.4 million hole in this year’s general fund, its chief operating budget. County officials cite declining sales-tax revenue caused by the recession as the primary reason for the cuts.

Monday night’s testimony focused on the effects of reductions on the health department, particularly to a family planning and sexually transmitted disease clinic, as well as the potential losses of sheriff’s deputies and the 4-H program. A specialized recreation program for people with disabilities has been spared, but many speakers worried about its future.

Jim Lazar, an Olympia resident, said the proposed cuts to parks and public health are unacceptable.

“These are essential public services and should not be gutted,” he said. “There must be a better way.”

He proposed a temporary wage reduction for county employees in lieu of program and service reductions. Wages would be restored after successful passage of a tax measure, under his proposal; otherwise, they would become permanent.

Several speakers said the health department is taking a disproportionate share of the proposed cuts. Miranda Harding, who used the health clinic for 16 years, wonders how many unwanted pregnancies and new cases of sexually transmitted diseases will occur with the clinic’s loss.

“I’m asking you to think long and hard about the effects to this community, which is yours, too,” she said, her voice breaking.

The proposed reductions would result in the closure of the parks department, although the county’s most popular parks and its trail system will remain open. The county was able to preserve the specialized recreation program for the rest of the year. The program helps people with disabilities build friendships and provides their family members with respite.

But many speakers worried about the future of the program beyond this year.

“What happens on Jan. 1, 2010?” asked Terri Rose, who has a family member in the program.

Bridget Fox traveled from Aberdeen to voice her opposition to the loss of patrol deputies in the sheriff’s office. Her daughter is a volunteer in the department, and Fox said she worries about her when the county “is playing the odds on her safety.”

Fox said, “If we lose officers in that area, I’ll probably think twice about coming to Olympia to spend my tax dollars.”

The deputies’ union has threatened to sue the county if proposed cuts to its membership are finalized. The county commissioners and Sheriff Dan Kimball also are at odds over the reductions.

To start the year, the county slashed $4 million from its general fund. The fund pays for three-quarters of the county’s criminal justice system.

Eighty-six positions were eliminated at the start of the year and another 64 positions are expected to be lost in this round of budget cuts. Combined, the reductions amount to 10 percent of the county’s work force.

Assistant County Manager Cynthia Stewart said departments identified $2.7 million in reductions, and another $2.2 million in new revenue was found.

Commissioners will close the remaining budget hole of at least $500,000.

Taxable retail sales in the county dropped more than 10 percent — a record drop — in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with the same period in 2007, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Commissioners will discuss the comments from the public hearing this morning and are scheduled to approve cuts this afternoon.

Christian Hill: 253-555-5555