“Do less with less,” Thurston County officials brace for $294 million budget freeze

“Frozen” isn’t just a hit Disney movie. It’s also the theme for Thurston County’s 2015 budget cycle.

During their weekly meeting on Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners heard a presentation about the preliminary 2015 spending plan, which is about $294 million. About $88 million of it would come out of the county’s general fund, which is directly overseen by the commissioners.

The county cut more than $5 million in spending in 2014, according to budget director Robin Campbell. But for 2015, instead of balancing the books with another round of reductions, the county’s elected leaders and department heads were asked to create spending plans using the same funding levels as 2014, she said.

“We have a freeze,” Campbell added. “It’s up to each elected official how he or she is going to absorb any increases in costs.”

County officials expects to wrap up 2014 with a reserve of $8.9 million. If the 2015 draft plan goes through, the county would close out 2015 with just over $10 million in the bank.

Officials are trying to build the reserve fund up to at least $14 million, which would cover about two months of the county’s bills, Campbell said. It’s a long term process.

“If we did that all at once, it would be another year of severe budget cuts,” Campbell said. “...Really, what we’re doing is creating a plan to get there over time.”

Even though the real estate market is beginning to rebound, the county is expecting new construction to remain flat in 2014, she said. And just like last year, the county is expecting to see a reduction in state and federal grants.

“We don’t expect a lot of money, especially new money, to be coming from the state,” Campbell told the commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.

In a news release about the preliminary budget, commission chair Karen Valenzuela described the plan as one that “reflects a responsible approach to maintaining critical services, while supporting the county strategic goal of long-term fiscal sustainability.”

Commissioner Sandra Romero noted that the spending plan adheres to revenue limitations that were voted into law.

“We are faced with the increasingly difficult task of finding ways to pay for critical services and programs, and as a result, offices and departments across the county have begun to do less with less,” she said.

Meantime, Commissioner Cathy Wolfe praised the county’s elected officials and department staff for rising to the the challenge of the budget freeze.

“They’ve presented very smart, finely tuned spending plans that enable us to deliver mandatory services as efficiently as possible,” she said.

Last year, the commissioners have asked for the department heads and elected officials to submit their ideas on how they would cut their budgets, and those cuts were approved by the board.

This year, spending plans were kept at the department level, Campbell said.

“We decided that they need to be allowed to manage it,” she said. “They have to decide for themselves.”

Mostly, managers will have to figure out how to cover a 2 percent cost of living increase for most work groups, and a 5.3 percent hike in medical benefit premiums, she said.

Several departments and offices found ways to trim costs by cutting costs or other expenses.

“A lot of them are holding vacancies,” Campbell said. “Most of it is through attrition.”

Not everyone is as excited as the commissioners about the 2015 spending plans.

The county’s law and justice programs make up a little more than 25 percent of the overall budget, and account for about 75 percent of the spending in the county’s general fund.

In an open letter to the community, Sheriff John Snaza said the 2015 budget edict will result in a 3 percent reduction in the county’s law enforcement budget. He said the result will be the elimination of six deputy positions.

Those positions became open in 2014 due to retirements, a resignation and a termination, according to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Cliff Ziesemer.

Officials are proposing leaving those positions open in 2015 and possibly leave two non-deputy positions open, depending on how the numbers shake out, Ziesemer said.

“The population of our county continues to grow and the calls for service have significantly increased,” Snaza wrote in his letter. “At the same time we have lost the resource of six deputies. ...Our highest priority and life threatening calls are creating a public safety issue with delayed responses to these emergent calls.”

He urged people to attend the county commissioner’s public hearing on Oct. 6, and voice their opinions and concerns about the budget proposals.