Pierce County Council approves $762M budget

Pierce County Councilmembers Tuesday adopted a 2011 county budget that reduces the cost of delivering government services while keeping public safety the top priority in a still-sluggish economy.

Based on the County Executive’s proposal released in September, the council’s version of the 2011 budget is composed of the $268 million General Fund, which pays for most county services mainly with sales and property taxes, and 66 other self-supporting funds, for a grand total of $762.3 million. It also calls for raises of at least 2.5 percent to the county’s 3,000 employees. Expenses in this budget are 4.3 percent lower than in 2010.

Although every county department has made cuts, the portion of the General Fund dedicated to the sheriff, corrections, legal services, and courts will increase from 76.6 percent in 2010 to approximately 78 percent in 2011. For instance, the council has restored $411,000 for four positions in the Sheriff’s Department, including two commissioned officers.

Like the executive, the council did not use General Fund reserves to balance the budget. General Fund reserves are the county’s savings account and stand at an estimated $23.9 million, which is 8.9 percent of the total General Fund. The county’s goal is to keep 10 percent of the General Fund in reserve.

The budget asks the executive to make recommendations to improve customer service and efficiency in the Planning and Land Services Development Center; requests the Information Technology Department to report to the council on a cost containment plan, with the goal of limiting IT cost growth to the rate of inflation in any given year; asks the executive to report by March 15 on a plan for the long-term viability of the Chambers Bay Golf Course Fund, including suggestions for operational changes, sale of adjoining properties, optional funding for debt-service payments, and the transfer or lease of the golf course to a private entity; and reduces the cost of the Performance Audit Office by restructuring and streamlining the function, allowing the county to hire more independent, outside audits and related consulting services.

“My team worked with the County Council to develop a 2011 budget that represents a collaborative, bipartisan approach to deliver the most effective services with limited resources,” said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. “This budget confirms that public safety is our top spending priority. That’s why the percentage of the General Fund that is dedicated to law enforcement and judicial services is increasing from 76.6 percent in 2010 to approximately 78 percent in 2011. Working together, the Council and Sheriff Paul Pastor and I were able to make adjustments that resulted in a budget increase for the Sheriff’s Department that protects several important staff positions. It is important to note that we protected every existing deputy position.”

McCarthy noted the following:

— Since 2008, Pierce County has eliminated more than 450 positions through attrition or layoffs and cut approximately $120 million in total spending;

— Since 2009, the county has saved more than $1.3 million via furloughs (unpaid time off);

— The merger of the Department of Community Services and the Department of Human Services is on track to take effect in early 2011, and the result should be a department that provides more services to more people with the same amount of money;

— The county is closing inefficient, expensive-to-operate facilities such as the old Puget Sound Hospital and the District Court facility on Hosmer Street in Tacoma;

— The county has asked its employees to absorb 100 percent of the medical cost increases for 2011;

— The county is in talks with labor unions about changes to future compensation packages for employees that will enable the county to adjust to economic conditions;

— A study team is preparing to send recommendations on changing the way the county does business at the Department of Planning and Land Services (PALS), which plays a vital role in assisting and managing the county’s growth.

Despite the cautious approach the council and executive have taken in this budget, Council Chair Roger Bush said the budget might need further amending if the economy doesn’t improve.

“If revenues coming into the county remain constant, we should be able to sustain this current budget through 2011,” Bush said. “If they don’t, we may be forced to make further reductions at some point next year.”

If signed by the executive, the 2011 budget goes into effect on Jan. 1. For more budget information, visit http://www.piercecountywa.gov/council .