Major cuts to Pierce County's 2010 budget

The Pierce County Council this evening adopted a 2010 county budget that cuts nearly $3 million and puts $1.5 million...

The Pierce County Council this evening adopted a 2010 county budget that cuts nearly $3 million and puts $1.5 million into reserves. The council’s $269.3 million general-fund budget is $1.4 million less than the $270.6 million proposal it received from the County Executive in September. Of the $2.9 million in reductions councilmembers achieved, $1.9 million came from the Planning and Land Services Department (PALS). To help further prepare for more possible budget reductions next year, an amendment asks the executive to report by Jan. 31 on how to lower 2010 general-fund expenditures both by 1 percent and by 3 percent.

Councilmembers decided not to use cash reserves to help balance the budget; the County Executive’s proposal pulled $1 million from the county’s savings account, also known as general fund balance. Voters’ repeal of Ranked-Choice Voting last week also freed-up $500,000 that would have been needed to implement the voting system for the 2010 election. The budget also dedicates $150,000 in the auditor’s budget to retain poll voting in Pierce County

On the public safety and criminal justice front, the jail budget was reduced by $85,000, Superior Court increased by $80,000, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office received $190,000 more and District Court was increased by $50,000.

The council budget explores consolidating county departments. One amendment asks the executive to report back by June 30 on the feasibility of combining the Human Resources, Budget and Finance, Facilities, Risk Management and Information Technology departments into one General Services Division. Another amendment asks for a report by June 30 on making PALS a part of the Public Works & Utilities Department, which administers the county’s roads, utilities, ferries and airports.

***UPDATE****

On Thurs., Nov. 12, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy issued the following statement regarding the budget.

These are very difficult times for families and businesses in Pierce County, as well as the governments that serve them. And like those families and businesses, governments must operate within their means. This budget is a beginning, not an end. My team continues to take a hard look at county services, and I expect more changes in the next year as we find new ways to make our work for the citizens of Pierce County more efficient.

On Aug. 22, I sent the Pierce County Council a proposed 2010 budget that is fiscally responsible and sustainable. It relies on conservative revenue forecasts and focuses on the priorities and services that Pierce County residents expect.

Given the gravity of the economic recession, I delivered my 420-page budget proposal a week earlier than required by the County Charter in order to give the Council more time to consider these complex issues. In recent weeks, Council members asked lots of questions about programs and priorities. They wrestled with the difficulty of maintaining core services that people expect, even in the face of declining revenues. The budget they passed incorporates nearly all of my recommendations while also including adjustments that reflect the Council’s interests. I can identify with the relief they expressed last night to have reached this stage of the process. As the Council chairman said, there is little to like in this budget.

That said, I have a couple of initial concerns about the measure that is headed to my desk:

Planning and Land Services: The Council cut an additional $1.9 million beyond my proposal, which is equal to the loss of about 22 positions. Permitting is closely linked to economic development and the creation of jobs in Pierce County. Many economists predict the economy will turn around in the coming year, and I am concerned that this budget cut will result in a large backlog in processing permits. If we have a giant backlog, then construction activity could shift to neighboring counties as the economy bounces back, thus slowing Pierce County’s recovery. Economic development and job creation are priorities for my administration, and I see the extra-large budget cut as a setback for Pierce County.

Public input: The Council did not reveal its substantive changes to the budget until about 24 hours before the final vote. As a result, there was insufficient opportunity for meaningful public input. In the coming year, I will recommend that the Council improve the transparency of the budget process. Other governmental entities, including Tacoma and other smaller cities, have a first reading of the budget and then vote at least a week later. This allows the public ample time to read and understand the proposed budget, and to offer a full measure of valuable feedback. I think the County Council will agree that having an open and transparent budget process is critical to ensuring the trust of our citizens.

I have 10 days to act on the budget the Council sent to me. My team will take that time to analyze the last-minute decisions the Council made to ensure that there are no unintended consequences, such as the situation that occurred with last week’s hasty action to eliminate a Superior Court judge position.

More information on the budget is available at http://www.piercecountywa.gov/council .

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For earlier Index coverage of the Pierce County budget process, click on the following links:

1. Home stretch for Pierce County budget process — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1658084&more=0

2. Budget shortfall forces Health Department closures in 2010 — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1656521&more=0

3. ‘Roller coaster’ economy taps Pierce County PALS budget — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1654044&more=0

4. Pierce County Executive’s budget proposal cuts 200 jobs, $70 million in spending — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1628887&more=0

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