EVERETT — Worried about next year’s budget, some Snohomish County leaders want to start pinching pennies — now.
County Council members talked Tuesday about imposing a hiring freeze that would apply to most of the county’s open positions, with the exception of sheriff’s deputies. They also want to look over County Executive John Lovick’s shoulder to review some of his administration’s personnel decisions.
Adding to budget worries this year are the enormous costs of responding to the March 22 Oso mudslide.
“Our objective is to be proactive on the budget and rein in expenditures,” Councilman Terry Ryan said. “By starting early, it will lessen the impact on the 2015 budget. I don’t know why anybody would not be in favor of this.”
The county’s 2,700 employees take up the largest share of the budget, making personnel decisions a tempting place to cut.
A hiring freeze could be one step in that direction. Ryan called the proposal a “soft” freeze, because it would exempt patrol deputies and some other public safety employees. Otherwise, managers would need council approval to fill vacant jobs.
“We don’t want to hire positions that may not be in the 2015 budget,” Ryan said.
A second proposal would put a temporary halt to job reclassifications in the executive’s office. That’s a response to 10 percent raises some of Lovick’s top managers have received during the past year, even as signs started to appear of possible budget trouble.
A third proposal would look to eliminate redundant jobs among appointed, non-union employees who work in departments under Lovick’s authority.
A fourth idea would look at the best way to replace employees who are expected to retire in the next few years. It would look at how to hire the appropriate employees at an appropriate pay scale. That’s already happening in the county’s planning department.
County leaders last year approved a 2014 operating budget of $228.5 million, about $15 million higher than the year before. To pay for the increase, county leaders raised property taxes, adding roughly $25 to the annual tax bill for the owner of a home assessed at the countywide average of $275,000. The increase went, in part, to support the construction of a future $162 million courthouse.
Since then, Snohomish County experienced the deadliest and costliest natural disaster in its history, a mudslide that killed 43 people and destroyed a portion of Highway 530.
The county’s bill for handling the catastrophe now exceeds $25 million. The federal and state governments could reimburse about 88 percent — about $22 million — of slide costs, but there’s no guarantee they’ll sign off on everything.
County finances had, until recently, appeared to be on the rebound after a years of stagnation. Steps to manage county finances since 2009 have included cutting service hours, layoffs and hiring freezes, and placing employees on unpaid furloughs.
The county’s public budget process doesn’t start until late September. That’s when the executive traditionally releases a spending proposal for the coming year, which the council vets.
During the nearly 10-year tenure of Lovick’s predecessor, Aaron Reardon, disagreements with the council over county finances often turned into a public spectacle. At one low point, the council in 2006 stripped Reardon of authority to sign contracts above $5,000.
Tuesday’s budget discussion, during a council committee meeting, was a departure from the warm relationships Lovick has enjoyed with others in county government since he was appointed to replace Reardon last year.
Deputy Executive Mark Ericks said he’d like to hear exactly what the council wants to accomplish. Then, he said, the executive’s office can figure out how to reach their goal.
“They tell us what they want to achieve, then we go about achieving it,” Ericks said.
Councilman Brian Sullivan agreed with Ericks’ approach. He faulted the council as a whole for poor communication over the budget.
“The executive’s office wasn’t properly informed” of the proposed actions, he said. “That’s a problem.”
Sullivan said he had already discussed some of the suggestions with Lovick before other colleagues brought them up.
Councilwoman Stephanie Wright, like Ryan, doesn’t want to take a wait-and-see attitude.
“We have four more months of 2014 and I’d hate to lose that opportunity,” Wright said. “I think we’re all very concerned about the budget.”