Will $8 million budget shortfall touch Pierce County historic preservation?

When an amendment to the 2009 Pierce County budget was proposed last week, it raised concerns for some local historic preservationists.

On Jan. 23, the county’s director of budget and finance, Patrick Kenney, sent a letter to elected officials and department directors outlining Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy’s proposal for bridging a projected $8 million shortfall in the county’s current budget. It’s a four-page letter of recommendations available here — http://www.wahmee.com/docs/pcbudget_letter.pdf .

Two recommendations are important to anyone interested in historic preservation.

One calls for eliminating $225,000 from the county’s historical documents program. Another calls for eliminating $261,600 from the Planning and Land Services (PALS) department “to be determined by the department.” The latter is relevant because the county’s historic preservation office is a division of PALS. A fear exists that preservation could be a target of some of those cuts.

This all comes at a time when the county’s preservation program could use some work. The Index noted as much in a feature article last spring (see “Behind The Times,” 04/02/08 or http://www.wahmee.com/tdi_pierce_county_preservation.pdf ).

Two years ago, there was hope.

In 2007, the county discovered a pool of money slated to be used for historic preservation. The money had accrued as a result of state legislation enacted in 2005. The legislation directed $1 of a $5 filing fee toward “historic preservation and historical programming, which may include document preservation.”

Between 2005 and 2008 the revenue from the surcharge reached just over $1 million, according to county officials.

In November 2007, Pierce County Council approved an ordinance directing $366,000 for a historic property survey, $60,000 for a historic document survey, $200,000 for a grant program, $37,000 to turn the half-time historic preservation officer into a full-time position, and $37,000 for a part-time grant writer.

However, the county has only spent money on some of those directives.

According to Kenney, budget manager Aaron BeMiller, and legislative budget analyst Paul Bocchi, who all provided financial information for a summary prepared by the advocacy organization Historic Tacoma earlier this month (that document is available at http://www.wahmee.com/docs/pcfunding_summary.pdf ), $173,529 was expended in 2006 for “internal purposes”; $65,524 was expended in 2008 for a grant program and funding for the part-time preservation officer; this year, $100,000 has been allocated for document preservation purposes, and $108,000 for historical document microfilming, records retention and management, and other state archivist related expenditures department-wide. Subtracting those expenditures — roughly $446,000 — from the $1 million pool would leave approximately $554,000 for historic preservation, historical programming, and document preservation.

To its credit, the county did award approximately $195,000 in grants to more than a dozen local preservation groups for various projects last year. The money will be paid out to the organizations on a reimbursement basis.

Putting preservation money on the chopping block during current budget amendment deliberations could kill that momentum.

With a recommendation now to cut $261,600 from PALS and $225,000 from the county’s historical documents program, the following questions will likely be answered when Pierce County Council finalizes and approves the budget amendments in the near future:

– How much of the proposed $261,600 PALS budget reduction will come out of the historic preservation program within PALS?

– Will anyone within county government lobby hard to leave historic preservation money alone?

– Will the county follow through on the council’s direction to increase the part-time preservation officer position to a full-time slot while other departments are asked to make cuts?

– Similarly, will the county still (a.) spend the money set aside for an updated inventory and (b.) continue to fund its grant program as directed by the council in 2007?

To be sure, these are difficult times for many municipalities. Pierce County is no exception. In a memo to employees Jan. 23, McCarthy reported that revenue from sales tax, new construction, and interest on investments has declined, and Pierce County experienced negative general fund growth last year. “A budget crisis is not the way I wanted to begin my new administration,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, that is the reality.”

True.

It’s a tough economy now.

But history shows the American economy slumps and soars. As most preservationists will tell you, the effects of failing to protect and support local history are long-term.

– SIDEBAR ARTICLE | Candidate McCarthy on historic preservation –

Last year, this newspaper interviewed then-candidate for Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy for a story published in the Index, posted on Exit 133 ( http://www.exit133.com/4667/ ), and aired on KXOT-FM 91.7. During the interview, we asked her if historic preservation funds would be in jeopardy under her leadership. Though she did express her support for historic preservation, it was peppered with the realities associated with a tough economy.

Her remarks didn’t make the final edit, but they are included in today’s edition of the Index:

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: For the first time in a long time — and I don’t know how familiar you are with the county’s preservation program — but for the first time in awhile there has been money available –

PAT MCCARTHY: Right –

INDEX: — for Pierce County’s preservation program. I have heard, in covering general historic preservation in Tacoma, a concern that with budget cuts at the county, that money could be in jeopardy. What is your feeling on that? As I understand it, there is close to $900,000 that has been collected from a filing fee that can be used by the county. Is that protected? Is that something that preservationists should be concerned about when they read about the budget cuts and the county trying to find money elsewhere?

MCCARTHY: Well, I’m tremendously familiar with the recorded document fee because of the work that I do, and the association that I’m a member of — the Washington State Auditor’s Association — did fight to get those preservation dollars and worked very hard hand-in-hand with Representative Paul King from King County. He was actually the sponsor of that legislation. It provides a dedicated dollar, if you will, to historical preservation groups outside of the county. We do a tremendous amount of historical preservation of recorded documents in Pierce County, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done in preserving, really, the history, from a documents point of view, in the county. So a certain portion of those dollars go to preserving the documents we have in Pierce County — those records — which is our history. But there’s dedicated dollars specifically for outside entities to go through a grant process to be able to secure for either buildings or it could be for documents or for a whole host of preservation activities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be buildings, but it can. So I’m very supportive of it. I testified on behalf of the association because I was co-chair of the legislative committee on this very issue. So I’m very supportive of that. We need to preserve our history in Pierce County. Those dollars are dedicated dollars that can’t be used for other entities. So they won’t be removed from those funds to be able to put back into the general fund. However, I do think everyone needs to know that revenue is down. So if we’re recording less documents in the county, we’re not generating and it’s not increasing that pool of money. There will be a drop in revenue, but not from taking those monies out of that dedicated fund and putting it into the general fund — unless the county council decides they are going to try and do something like that. I don’t know if that can happen. Other things have happened that are surprising. But it is a dedicated dollar and it is a dedicated fund. I would think it would be very questionable if someone tried to grab into those dollars and tried to use them somewhere else.

INDEX: There is also money for making the preservation officer a full-time position — right now it’s part-time. In speaking to the preservation officer, she works half-time as a preservation officer, and half-time as a planner. How do you increase that position at a time when other departments are asked to cut back? I guess I’m getting to the point of whether [preservation is] something that is important to the county, or something that is just nice to have.

MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, from just a management point of view and a logistics point of view, it would be incumbent to know if there is enough work to generate a full-time position. Or is it feasible to be able to have a person half-time doing this and half-time doing that or three-quarters of a particular activity and a quarter-time doing another activity. I don’t know. I haven’t researched that particular position. I do think the county needs to look at each division and what we provide with regard to services to the citizens of Pierce County. In difficult budget times, we do have to tighten the belt. We do have to look at how we provide services. For me, it’s all about providing good customer service. In all of these different divisions, we really need to look at it from that perspective. What are we providing? How can we provide it better? Does it require us to add more staff or just diversify the opportunity for what staff can do? Especially if there are peaks and valleys, where you have a huge amount of work at this time of the month, and you have less amount at another time. That kind of efficiency analysis is something I do in my office every day. That’s something I would do as county executive as well. Division by division: How we are doing it? Who do we have? How do we employ people? All of those things.

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