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County committee works out spending limits

In a series of motions that brought one county board member to obscenity and some department administrators to consternation, the Pierce County Finance and Personnel Committee approved a 2007 budget last week that keeps the county under its state-mandated levy cap.

The budget proposal will be introduced at next Tuesday's county board meeting. Discussion and adoption are expected at the Tuesday, Nov. 14, meeting.

"We went with the assumption that everybody has to shed some blood," said Finance and Personnel Chairwoman Kirstin Schilling as she led the committee through a series of cuts worked out by herself, County Board Chairman Paul Barkla, Administrative Coordinator Curt Kephart and Finance Director Julie Brickner.

"In some cases, the standing committees didn't really do their work and didn't follow the directions of the board," said Schilling. So, she said, the group of four met apart and worked out a series of recommendations.

Committee members had come to Wednesday's meeting knowing they had to cut $1.3 million from budget requests.

Series of actions

These were the motions adopted last week:

--No new personnel will be added in 2007. That cut $329,596 from budget proposals.

--The 2007 budget will not have any money to cover a projected 2006 deficit of about $500,000 for the human services department. Supervisor Rich Purdy, who serves on the human services committee, said the estimate is based on what the department knows at this point, but could change by the time the audit is finished next July.

--The county's 2007 budget will include $406,401 to cover the human service department's 2005 deficit.

Schilling said that, while much of the deficit was beyond the department's control, there are some internal problems. She said the county will look at restructuring accounting functions and perhaps ultimately going to a countywide finance department.

--The committee accepted $529,596 worth of cuts offered by the human services department and directed the department to make another $319,651 in cuts.

Because those are cuts in proposed increases, the department will actually get a 3.487 percent increase in property tax levy money. That means the agency will get $1,704,313 from the property tax levy to help fund a 2007 budget of about $10 million.

'The best we can'

The human services department and its parent committee presented a realistic budget, said Supervisor Ben Plunkett, who responded to finance committee trimming with a repeated obscenity.

"I would rather have no roads than have individuals on the streets with no homes, with no medicine, with no wheelchairs when they need one," said Plunkett. He insisted the county is opening itself up to lawsuits if it fails to provide services that he said are mandated.

Levy limit caps are also mandates, replied Human Services Chairman Bill Gilles. He said schools are doing without nurses and librarians because they can't afford them.

"I think in this situation we're doing the best we can," said Gilles.

--The sheriff's department will get $4,665,521--the same tax levy support it got for 2006. This is an $83,000 cut in the department's most recent proposal.

Future problems?

Chief Deputy Neil Gulbranson warned the limit sets the department up for problems. The department is down to replacing only two squad cars a year and that's not enough, he said.

"What happens next year when we need four cars or five cars?" he asked.

While the department budgets for overtime costs, it can't control the days officers are off work due to illness and injuries, said Gulbranson. He said the budget contains $35,000 less for overtime than it had in 2003.

Gulbranson said the department has already cut the boating, ATV and snowmobile safety classes it has previously offered to county residents and is now looking at eliminating the DARE program and putting that officer on patrol.

--The highway department will cut the administration fees (about $10,000) it typically charges to other departments. Its property tax levy will be increased about 2.9 percent to $2,996,662, but the department has agreed to send $100,000 to the county's contingency fund. The transactions were arranged this way to protect state funding.

--The committee cut $46,350 from requests for university extension. The department will get $256,653 in county tax money.

--A total of $537,836 will be added to $806,743 of uncommitted money in the county's contingency fund.

'Triangle of needs'

"I don't understand the value here of your 'share the pain (plan)'," said Purdy, who wasn't happy with the division of funding. "This is like paving the highway instead of taking care of a sick child."

He said the county's emphasis should be on law enforcement and human services.

"Those are at the top of a triangle of needs that are most basic," said Purdy. "They should be the last to be cut."

"We're talking about limited resources. We have to make tough, lousy decisions," responded Barkla. He said county leaders have to think of the taxpayers that need well-maintained roads to get to jobs.

When supervisors began the budget process, they talked about prioritizing needs and thought they could achieve that in this budget cycle, said Supervisor Jeff Holst.

While that wasn't fully accomplished, the process has begun, said Holst. "We have started to think."

"It's been a long arduous process," said Barkla the next day. "We met and met and met."

He said he was pleased with the results. "There was real input. People really worked hard to try to be creative."