County budget plan spends more, doesn’t raise taxes

EVERETT — A healthier economy has given Snohomish County Executive John Lovick leeway to propose the largest budget increase in years — without raising taxes.

The 2014 operating budget Lovick announced Friday calls for about $225 million in spending. Bolstered by increases in county tax revenues and fees, it’s about 5.4 percent higher than the current $213 million budget.

Despite improving fortunes, Lovick has proposed adding just four full-time and one part-time position to the operating budget. An $800,000 chunk of the increase would go to pump up the county’s reserve funds, depleted during lean years.

“We’re going to continue our current level of funding and make smart investments moving forward,” Lovick said during a speech unveiling his plans. “We have so many worthy projects and programs that deserve funding. And as the economy improves, we will discuss those projects.”

People have the chance to comment on the county’s budget at a series of meetings and public hearings to be hosted by the County Council, beginning next month. The council expects to pass its version of the budget the Monday before Thanksgiving.

New positions envisioned for next year include an ombudsman, a person to take the lead on environmental issues, a legal assistant, a court assistant and a part-time park ranger.

Lovick also announced plans to begin building safe sidewalks along county roads near an estimated 40 percent of Snohomish County schools.

“Starting next year, we’re dedicating a portion of our county road taxes to improve pedestrian routes near elementary schools,” Lovick said during his speech. “Six, seven and eight-year-old children should not have to walk in the roadway on their way to and from school.”

Separately, Lovick has formed a task force of mental-health professionals who will discuss better ways to coordinate services for people living with mental illness. The goals include public safety and lessening the strain severely mentally ill people can place on the county jail, hospitals and other facilities.

This was Lovick’s first budget cycle since taking office in June, following the resignation of Aaron Reardon. Judging from the reactions of other county leaders, Lovick’s budget delivered on his promise to bring more transparency and better communication.

“It’s a refreshing change from the past few years,” said Councilman John Koster, who had served on the council for all of Reardon’s tenure. “On its face, there were no surprises at all.”

After Friday’s speech, Lovick held a reception in a sixth-floor conference room. Council members, Sheriff Ty Trenary and others milled about. The door to Lovick’s adjacent office was open, and the mood was light.

“It’s been such a great process, communicating all summer with the executive’s office,” said Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright, who will take the lead on drafting any changes.

There remains an unsolved financial puzzle that could alter any 2014 budget the county winds up passing. It concerns building a new courthouse, which Lovick and other county leaders say is overdue.

The county earlier this year obtained $75 million in bonds for the project, but the ultimate price tag could be $35 million to $70 million higher. The price tag will depend on which of two building sites the council chooses, among other decisions. The extra dollars could come from a combination of property-tax increases and revenues now used for debt payments due to end soon.

The county government workforce includes more than 2,700 budgeted positions.

The county’s total 2014 budget is forecast at $698 million. In addition to the $225 million operating budget, it includes dedicated revenue which the county cannot steer toward other purposes, such as human services grants, airport fees and most public works funding.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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