By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — Some Snohomish County Council members made their annoyance clear Monday as embattled County Executive Aaron Reardon’s finance staff discussed a looming budget shortfall next year of at least $5.5 million.
Councilman Dave Gossett wondered why he was being told about budget problems now, when most of the shortfall should have been obvious by late last year.
Councilman Dave Somers called one of Reardon’s proposed solutions “foolish.”
Somers was referring to a 0.1 percent criminal justice sales tax Reardon has prescribed to avoid 3.5 percent budget cuts to all county departments. For the sales tax to become reality, the County Council would have to act this summer to put it on the Nov. 6 ballot. Then it would have to win support from a majority of voters.
“I really think this has zero percent chance of passing,” Somers said.
Also last week, county government’s other six independently elected leaders — the auditor, assessor, treasurer, clerk, sheriff and prosecutor — sent the County Council a letter saying they oppose Reardon’s sales-tax proposal.
However, they also said they would be unable to cope with further budget cuts without compromising public safety or quality of life.
The executive’s push to put a sales tax on the ballot comes after he’s spent months besieged by legal problems and questions about his use of county resources during his successful re-election campaign.
Washington State Patrol detectives have been investigating Reardon, 41, since October for alleged misuse of public funds. A Herald investigation of public records also has shown that Reardon and a staffer made extensive use of his office in 2011 for his re-election campaign.
It is unclear when the investigation and Reardon’s legal headaches will be concluded.
Reardon’s recommended budget for 2013 isn’t slated for release until late September. After that, the County Council has the chance to rework it, though the executive can veto their changes.
On Monday, Reardon’s staff showed how the county’s operating budget decreased to $206.3 million in 2012, from $210.7 million in 2008. Though the difference is only 2 percent, inflation during that time was above 7 percent.
Reardon’s staff said cuts made so far have fallen disproportionately on non-public-safety departments, though others in county government disagree with that characterization.
Without new revenue, the county’s 2013 budget is set to shrink by an estimated $5.5 million — maybe more.
The declines have come from an assumption in the 2012 budget that departments, collectively, will spend $2.5 million less than what they’ve been given this year. The county also needs to shell out an estimated $1.8 million more in 2013 for its debt payments, which fluctuate from year to year.
Other hits to the budget come from dropping jail revenue, the loss of some money because of state budget cuts and last year’s vote to privatize the state liquor-distribution system.
Reardon maintains there are three ways out of the budget hole: cut more, ask voters to support a sales tax of an extra penny on a $10 purchase, or raise property taxes.
Under Reardon’s sales tax scenario, public safety budgets would be cut disproportionately, then replenished with money from the sales tax.
Some elected officials, including Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe and Council Chairman Brian Sullivan, have said they prefer raising property taxes to raising the sales tax. Councilman John Koster, who would prefer no new taxes, said, “I think cuts are inevitable, the question is to what degree?”
In an email forwarded through his spokesman, Reardon said voters should decide the issue.
“The electeds are asking the council to forego a vote of the people and avoid any further cuts by unilaterally raising property taxes up to 10 percent to cover the shortfall,” the email said. “I think the public has a right to be heard on this important issue.”
Meanwhile, the patrol’s criminal probe of the executive continues. It began after Tami Dutton, a county social worker and high school classmate of Reardon’s, went to Somers to report accompanying Reardon on county business trips as part of a long-running affair. Dutton alleged that the executive did little or no official work during those trips.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Roe asked the patrol to investigate and for Island County Prosecuting Attorney Greg Banks to make a charging decision. Banks has said the investigation remains incomplete until Reardon has been interviewed by detectives or has made it clear he has no desire to cooperate with them.
Banks said difficultly in arranging an interview is due to scheduling conflicts with Reardon’s defense attorney.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.