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County big-wigs huddle on budget
"By HEIDI J. STOUTStaff WriterIn the wake of Silverdale Incorporation and Initiative 695, county officials are wrangling with a slimmer budget and little ability to raise taxes. This is the first story in a two-part series about how the county plans to cope. In this issue, officials plan a budget strategy and debate whether new sheriffs deputies should be added now or packaged with a tax hike for voter approval. In the next issue, everything from parks to personnel is considered for a county budget cut.County budget manager Ben Holland grimaced as he brought Kitsap countys elected officials the bad news. I wanted to wear a sign with a (picture of a) gun and a bar through it and the word messenger underneath, Holland said.Most of the county officials laughed. When they hunkered down at Long Lake Community Center on Friday to plan the 2000 budget, they didnt shoot the messenger but they took plenty of shots at each other.The county budget pie will be much smaller next year Initiative 695 and Silverdale incorporation together took a $3.4 million chunk out of county revenues. So each department head was forced to compete for money in what almost became a competition to see who would sacrifice least.This is actually a lot more civil than it was last year, whispered County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido as two officials debated a particularly contentious point. A lot more civil, she said again.Four distinct county clusters came to the table at the strategic budget planning meeting Friday with varied priorities. From the county Law and Justice cluster, another court clerk and a courthouse facilitator were top priorities the latter is expected to save judges time by ensuring that people who represent themselves have their papers in order.From the Central Services cluster, the personnel department requested a labor relations specialist to work with the 14 collective bargaining units of county employees, and to deal with any layoffs next years budget might require.Prosecutor Russ Hauge asked for a legal receptionist and another deputy prosecutor in the civil division to help tackle the heavy case load. If anybody questions me on this, you should look in the civil (division of the prosecutors) office at 6:30 at night and see how many lights are on, he said.Treasurer Sharon Shrader joined Assessor Jim Avery in pleading for a Land Information System. By far, this computer database system had the biggest price tag of any departments request - it costs $642,762 each year for the next five years.Hauge said that system shouldnt be purchased right away, although the prosecutors and sheriffs offices both got new information systems this year. I think your experience is entirely different than ours, said Shrader, you bought a package, were building a system. She estimated that the county spends $250,000 each year to repair and hire technical support for their current outmoded system.But you should look at that $600,000 and say thats 10 people each year, said Kitsap County Planning Commission member Carl Walske of Silverdale. He was one of a half-dozen private citizens who joined in the debate.BUDGET PRIORITIESWhen the fiery debate over which department was more deserving died down, county officials took turns listing the following items as priority considerations for the 2000 budget. Pay for things now that would cost more if the county deferred them. Review each departments operating costs. Keep state-mandated county services. Purchase technology that would increase employees performance without added labor. Resolve Initiative 695 legal questions about taxing constraints. Consider program termination expenses. Take into consideration timing and prioritize top issues to present to voters. Allow revenue-neutral positions and those that help the county to avoid potential litigation.NEW DEPUTIES?The Law and Justice cluster of county agencies requested three new sheriffs deputies to patrol the county next year, and three more for the traffic division. But these requests didnt make it to the top of the list during the budget summit.Each new sheriffs deputy would cost the county $46,164 in salary and benefits expenses, plus another $30,000 for a car and law enforcement equipment. Thats a pretty steep price tag on capital costs for deputies, and Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn questioned Undersheriff Dennis Bonneville about the possibility of deputies sharing a car.Theres an immediate savings but down the road its gonna cost, Bonneville said. The Washington State Patrol has studied the feasibility of the idea, former WSP trooper Bonneville said, and concluded that the overall cost of either scenario is about the same.In the WSP study, a car shared by two troopers has a two and a half year lifespan, while a car use by one trooper lasts four years. The problem is you lose flexibility and availability of officers, Bonneville said. The sheriffs department already uses car-sharing sparingly when a car is out of service for repair.Walske suggested that commissioners approve the new deputy program - with a catch. He said commissioners should defer hiring the deputies until funds become available or voters approve a tax hike specifically for that program.County Commissioner Tim Botkin said asking voters to approve a tax increase for something they like - more police on the streets - makes sense tactically.We must factor in the sale-ability of these things for public vote, Botkin said. Anything they (voters) dont understand, we should probably take a higher look at. Botkin said county officials may want to reorganize budget priorities so voters make funding choices on the most popular programs.Several county officials discussed the possibility of Silverdale contracting with the county for police services. Money from that contract could pay for a number of new deputies in Silverdale, while the current number of sheriffs deputies would be responsible for patrolling unincorporated Kitsap county.County Clerk Dean Logan worried about the fallout from any potential increase in police activity. More arrests create more work for clerks, prosecutors and judges, which will require more county money to pay for more staff. Those ripple cost have to be included in any proposal for more deputies, Logan said.County saved for rainy day, or Silverdale incorporationSilverdales incorporation will impact the Kitsap county budget severely in 2001, when sales tax revenues are diverted from the county to the new city.But the budget double-whammy from Initiative 695 and Silverdale incorporation is felt this year, when county officials must choose which programs to downsize.Despite most of the complaints that a smaller county budget is putting the squeeze on county programs, Flynn said the county has prepared for Silverdale incorporation for several years by saving money in a reserve account.That explains part of the $11.8 million Kitsap County currently holds reserves. Part of that money was saved to offset the impact of incorporation, Flynn said. Another part of the total came from a budget windfall of sorts - county budget planners didnt predict the spend, spend, spend attitude of Kitsap consumers.We underestimated sales tax significantly, said Holland. The economy is hot, people are spending money like crazy. All of that spending generated $700,000 more sales tax revenue than was expected this year.But based on budget projections, the nearly $12 million reserve will be depleted by the end of 2002 if the county doesnt either downsize or get voters to approve a tax hike.We are healthy right now, Holland said, but the critical year to spend conservatively is 2000. Hauge agreed. If anything, we should be more conservative with our assumptions for next year because itll take at least that long for the courts to decide how much taxing power county officials have, Hauge said."