Thurston County commissioners will hold public hearings on the proposed 2017-18 budget Monday and Tuesday.
It’s the first time the county will propose a two-year spending plan, and the first time the Board of County Commissioners has used group prioritization in developing the budget, officials say.
The county’s department heads and elected officials were invited to recommend additional spending that would focus “on initiatives that align with the strategic plan of the county and produce the maximum outcomes or close critical service gaps,” according to the budget document.
“I’m excited about the changes we have implemented in this budget process,” Commissioner Bud Blake said in a news release. “We are hoping to improve financial stability and predictability.”
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However, just as officials have been predicting for several years, the county expects to bring in less money than it plans to spend during the next budget cycle.
Preliminary figures show overall expenditures of $314.6 million for 2017 and $317.9 million for 2018. That compares with $303.8 million for 2016. Meanwhile, the county expects to bring in $307.8 million in revenue in 2017 and $293.5 million in 2018.
The county’s general fund, which is directly overseen by the county commissioners, is proposed at $98.3 million for 2017 and $99.2 million for 2018, compared with $93.8 million in 2016.
The 342-page document can be viewed on the county’s website: co.thurston.wa.us.
Commissioner Sandra Romero said the priority spending process and two-year budget planning have helped the county focus its spending on programs that residents most value.
“Looking at a two-year cycle will also help provide for accountability and transparency and better align the budget with strategic plans and goals,” she said in a news release.
The local housing market is up, sales tax revenue is about 7 percent ahead of this time last year, and unemployment is about where it was before the Great Recession, according to assistant county manager Robin Campbell.
However, the county’s main source of revenue — property taxes — are still capped at 1 percent growth annually by state law, and revenue isn’t keeping up with inflation that averages 3 to 5 percent a year, officials say. To maintain the current level of services and programs and balance the books, officials will need to transfer a portion of the county’s ending fund balance — essentially its reserves or rainy day account — into the general fund.
“Balancing the demand for county programs with the need for a prudent set-aside is tough,” Commissioner Cathy Wolfe said in a news release. “But we need those reserves in case the economy falters or we get more unfunded mandates from the state or federal governments. We also need to have funds to take care of county residents and infrastructure should we have an emergency like a major wind storm.”
The county’s ending fund balance was $13.4 million in 2015 and is expected to be about $10 million in 2016. Under the proposed spending plan, the ending balance will dip to $8.8 million in 2017 and drop even further — to $8.07 million — in 2018.
Of course, the spending plan could change as the commissioners take input from department heads and elected officials, who will make their cases for requests that didn’t get included in the proposed budget, and resident input that’s given during the public hearings.
In addition, the county has two newly elected commissioners, Gary Edwards and John Hutchings, who will replace Romero and Wolfe in a few weeks. Both campaigned on changing the county’s spending on certain programs, including law enforcement and Mazama pocket gopher habitat reviews.
The budget is scheduled for adoption Dec. 16.
If you go
The Thurston County Commissioners will conduct public hearings next week on the proposed 2017-18 budget. People can give input at sessions about specific topics, or attend general hearings on any part of the budget each evening. The hearings will be in Room 280 of Building 1 at the Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Olympia. The schedule is:
1:30 p.m. Law and Justice (Clerk, Coroner, District Court, Prosecuting Attorney, Sheriff, Superior and Juvenile Courts, Public Defense)
4 p.m. General Government (Assessor, Auditor, Board of County Commissioners, Treasurer, Human Resources, Central Services)
6 p.m. Capital Facilities Plan
6:15 p.m. General budget hearing
1:30 p.m. Transportation, Environment and Land Use (Resource Stewardship and Public Works)
4 p.m. Health and Human Services (Public Health and Social Services, Emergency Services)
6 p.m. Proposed fees for updates related to the county’s on-site sewage system management plan
6:30 p.m. General budget hearing