By Krista J. Kapralos, Herald Writer
EVERETT — About 75 Snohomish County planning workers have now been notified that their jobs will be gone in January. They are the first among 200 or more county employees expected to get pink slips within weeks as county leaders try to create a 2009 budget in the midst of a national economic crisis.
“This is worse than anything I’ve seen before, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Craig Ladiser, director of Planning and Development Services, said Wednesday. “There are people who have been here for over 30 years who are affected by this.”
Nearly 100 county planning jobs will be cut. About 25 of those jobs are currently vacant, Ladiser said. The cuts will shrink the department by half.
Changes in Ladiser’s department are in addition to an estimated 100 or more people working elsewhere in county government who will likely be told this week that their jobs are being eliminated.
Most of the countywide layoffs are due to a 2009 budget shortfall that could skyrocket to $20 million or more, decimating a county general fund that this year was $210 million. County Council Chairman Dave Somers told department heads this week to begin laying off workers even though the 2009 budget isn’t due for adoption until Nov. 24.
An early notice is better than forcing anxious county workers to wait another month before finding out whether they’ll have a job next year, Somers said. The extra time also gives the county’s human resources staff a chance to look for jobs for those workers elsewhere in county government.
Ladiser’s workers are funded by construction fees and other revenue associated with the housing market, not the general fund. The department issued just 89 residential building permits last month, down from an average of 160 issued each month during the first four months of this year, Ladiser said. The department’s 2008 budget was $21 million. It’s now expected to take in $13.8 million, he said.
The planning department’s 2009 budget is expected to be about $11 million, Ladiser said.
The health of governmental planning departments can be used as economic indicators, Ladiser said.
“We’re the first to feel the downturn,” he said.
Nearly 30 planning employees came close to losing their jobs in April when construction permits cooled. Ladiser then met with Public Works Director Steve Thomsen and developed a plan to loan planning workers to the public works department, which is funded by garbage fees and other services. The loan plan temporarily spared Ladiser’s department from layoffs.
The Public Works Department has vacancies now that could absorb some planning workers who would otherwise be laid off, Ladiser said. Other planning employees may find jobs elsewhere in county government, he said.
Where those jobs may be is unclear.
Layoffs are expected to occur in most county departments. The County Council this month asked department heads to propose cuts that would shave 9 percent from their budgets. Under an order from Somers, county human resources officials on Wednesday told department heads to begin distributing official layoff notices based on those proposals.
Somers said he doesn’t know the exact number of people who will lose their jobs, or which positions will be cut.
“I sent out a memo saying all departments should proceed under the assumption of 9 percent cuts and should start those layoffs now, so at least we have a list of positions proposed for elimination,” Somers said.
County workers have submitted to the council more than 200 suggestions on how to save money, Somers said. The most commonly submitted idea so far is to institute a shorter work week, he said, adding that the council is likely to ask for volunteers to shave hours from their schedules.
Neither Reardon nor Somers have considered seeking a reduction in their own pay. Reardon’s salary this year is about $139,000, and Somers is paid nearly $107,000. All 11 of the county’s elected leaders earn more than $93,000. Their salaries are determined by an independent salary commission.
“We’re not asking for salary cuts from other staff,” Somers said.
The council voted on Wednesday to approve only the 2009 budget by Nov. 24. The change came less than a year after the council voted to switch to a two-year budget cycle.
“Given the current economic uncertainty, we still don’t know for certain what our revenues will be next year, let alone what our revenues will be two years from now,” Somers said. “The council must have tighter and faster controls over county spending than a biennial budget allows.”