EVERETT — Snohomish County’s elected officials are heading into 2018 with stark disagreements about whether they’re on firm financial footing.
County Executive Dave Somers calls the budget that passed last month unsustainable. The County Council calls it responsible.
“While the council’s budget may meet most needs for 2018, it is unsustainable for 2019 and beyond,” Somers wrote Friday in a letter to council.
The executive declined to sign the budget, so it took effect by default. The council passed its version with unanimous support and could have overridden an executive veto.
A top concern for Somers is layoffs after 2018. Another is a drop in cash reserves, which could make it more expensive to borrow money and, in extreme cases, make payroll without getting loans.
The council’s plan includes an operating budget of just under $250 million. Total expenses, including fee- and grant-driven programs that aren’t part of the operating budget, top $900 million. There are more than 2,900 employees across all county departments.
The council decided not to seek any new revenues from homeowners, meaning the county will take in some $3.6 million less than Somers recommended. They saved the owner of a $336,000 home just over $11 next year. Instead of cutting back on employees, they agreed with Somers on the need to add five new sheriff’s deputies and a code-enforcement officer within the operating budget.
Council members know that property owners are likely to be hit hard by state education taxes next year. The average increase is estimated at $272, though the amount varies by school district and is still being worked out by tax officials. Those taxes were raised by the Legislature to satisfy funding requirements under the McCleary case.
“We’re not going to add to your burden,” Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said. “… I think the County Council is just being thoughtful.”
To help pare expenses, the council ended merit-based pay and funded some new positions for only the second half of 2018.
The council isn’t done tinkering with the budget. A hiring freeze is under consideration for an array of management employees, among other steps.
“At this point, the council is happy with the budget and happy to work with the executive during the first quarter of next year to make any adjustments that may be necessary,” Sullivan said.
Looking ahead, county finances should be helped somewhat now that the jail has fixed a billing glitch that caused anxiety earlier this year.
In August, the sheriff’s office noticed that the amount of money the jail was collecting to house inmates from other jurisdictions was far less than expected.
“We audited everything,” administrative services Bureau Chief Joanie Fadden said.
It turned out that the jail’s billing system had often failed to charge cities and other contract agencies higher rates for housing inmates with mental health problems and other medical needs. Those inmates require more attention from corrections deputies and medical staff, among other resources. The jail charges $55 to $133 more per day to house them. That comes on top of the $96 daily rate for the general population.
The problem had started in March 2016, Fadden said.
The jail typically houses about 900 inmates on any given day.
The jail expects to collect more than $750,000 that was underbilled in 2017, Fadden said. By year’s end, the facility should wind up close to the original forecast of $10.3 million in revenue from contract agencies.