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County budget committee submits interim report

A citizen’s committee formed to study how Kitsap County spends money and determine where to save has reached the one-year mark and will now work to fine-tune its recommendations.

“It took an entire year to get through this and now we will start over again,” said Bob Meadows, a Port Orchard resident who is the Citizen Budget Committee’s newly elected vice chairman. “It all boils down to what they can cut. If they absolutely cannot cut their operation, then we will need to raise taxes. If they can’t cut because of another condition, we will need to fix that condition. In either case, we will have to bring spending in line with revenue.”

The committee has held two meetings a month since June 2008. During that time, it has met with all of the county’s department heads and elected officials in an effort to determine what each agency does and where its money goes.

Its interim report submitted to the Kitsap County commissioners is dated May 4, but it was formally presented to the board June 22.

It was posted to the Web shortly after that meeting and can be viewed at www.kitsapgov.com/boards/citizens_budget.htm.

In its report, the committee recommended the county will need to “identify the factors contributing to spending increases in each part of county government, changing engrained habits, changing rules that cause each factor to increase and finding ways to be more efficient ... Spending has increased for years at a much faster rate than inflation and population.”

The new committee chair, John Ahl of North Kitsap, spent several years as a member of the “other” most influential volunteer board, the planning commission.

Like other volunteer boards, the committee has no policymaking authority. Instead, its recommendations are presented to the commissioners, who can then accept, reject or modify them.

And as a volunteer board with no authority, the committee is not always taken seriously by those testifying. Committee member Jim Sommerhauser noted some of those appearing before the committee were cooperative, while others were not.

Sommerhauser did not specify, but other committee members cited the auditor, assessor, treasurer and clerk for special praise.

On the other hand, public safety (sheriff, district court, prosecutor) staff have repeatedly — and publicly — resisted attempts to make cuts.

The report also recommends examining CenCom’s financial structure, concluding, “In 2003, operating expenditures for CenCom were about $3.5 million. They were budgeted at about $6 million in 2008. CenCom offered in its responses to this committee’s questions the explanation that the new tax is intended to be a supplement to existing revenues, not a replacement — but the question is whether CenCom’s expenditures should rise so quickly that they absorb all the new revenue and continue to be a significant burden on the previously existing general fund revenues.”

In the report, the committee recommended the county no longer support the debts of another entity and should not enter into any agreements similar to debt guarantee of the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority or the planned $1 million stake in the construction of the new Poulsbo City Hall.

At the June 22 meeting, North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer said he appreciated the committee’s efforts while acknowledging, “We might not do everything you suggest.”

It does not appear the county will follow the recommendation to move all operations to the county seat. This would involve closing offices in Bremerton, at the Norm Dicks Government Center, as well as the Poulsbo location.

It also recommended closing Poulsbo District Court, stating, “The county should evaluate activities at other locations and close (or not begin operations) which would be less costly if located in Port Orchard.”

In a recommendation that was not specifically mentioned in the report, committee member Shannon Childs suggested KCCHA concentrate its efforts on filling vacant houses in the county rather than building new ones.

Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown at first opposed the idea, saying an important part of the KCCHA process was the development of “sweat equity” in the new houses.

Brown later reversed himself and said Childs’ idea may have some merit.

The next meeting of the committee is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, July 20 at the county administration building. It is open to the public.

At that time, the cycle will begin again and department heads will appear for another round of discussion.

This time, Meadows hopes to ask a different set of questions.

“My only question is why they spend as much as they do, and how can they spend less?” he said. “No one could answer this and it was frustrating for me, since they spent the entire time defending their operation. Instead of giving us what we wanted, we got what I would call a dog-and-pony show from every one of them. It was like, ‘Here is what we do, it’s the Lord’s work and can’t be done for less.’ We would ask them why they spent as much as they did, and they had no idea.”

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