By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — Snohomish County cut its workers’ hours and halted most hiring Monday in an emergency effort to stave off a financial crisis without resorting to layoffs.
The County Council took the steps to fill a $6.7 million gap in the county’s general fund.
“This may not be the end of some difficult choices,” Chairman Mike Cooper said. “There’s no promise because we don’t know where this economy is going.”
Unpaid furlough days and a hiring freeze had been at the top of the council’s to-do list since earlier this month, when County Executive Aaron Reardon revealed a large revenue drop. To mend county finances, the council and the executive had to shave about 3 percent from the county’s $206 million general fund.
Reardon gave the council two emergency ordinances last week. The council passed revised versions of them Monday in 5-0 votes.
“We didn’t have any problem working through this rather complex and very sizeable issue,” Reardon said. “They took very little delay. Any of the changes are minor and they’re very technical.”
The bulk of the savings comes from 11 unpaid furlough days for county workers — about a 4 percent pay cut. In some cases, workers could get shortened workweeks instead of furlough days, with an equivalent loss of wages.
Since sheriff’s deputies and most jail workers are exempted from furloughs, their departments are being asked to make specific cuts to their personnel budgets.
The ordinance puts the furlough days into effect for employees who don’t belong to a union. Union members still must approve them. Later this week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 60 percent of the county’s 2,900-member work force, is expected to vote on tentative concessions.
If they don’t agree, the county probably will use layoffs to close the budget gap.
The furlough ordinance also aims to save $1.3 million by paying for traffic policing with money normally set aside for building and maintaining county roads. Another $900,000 in savings could result from paying less money into employee pension plans.
The decrease in pension contributions won’t lead to an undue burden in the future, Reardon said.
“There are ways to manage that so it doesn’t have to balloon,” he said.
A hiring freeze, part of a separate ordinance, was expected to trim about $300,000. The council passed a version of the freeze from Councilman Brian Sullivan but included elements that Reardon proposed.
In its final form, the freeze applies to almost all county jobs. There are exemptions allowing hires for temporary election and fair workers; for public works positions needed to start new projects, many of which are grant-funded; and for county airport workers, because they are funded separately from the general budget. The freeze runs through Dec. 31.
The council must approve any hires that aren’t specifically exempted.
Some members of the council fear that if worst-case scenarios come to pass, dropping real estate excise tax revenues could place another $4 million burden on the county’s general fund — pushing the total deficit to nearly $11 million. Reardon has said that is unlikely.
With the unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, Snohomish County has been feeling the effects of the tumbling national economy.
The figures Reardon’s office released two weeks ago showed sales tax falling $4.5 million short of expectations and investment earnings down by $1 million. At the same time, money collected from property sales and the county’s share of state timber sales had projected drop-offs of $470,000 and $425,000, respectively.