By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — Snohomish County’s annual budget has had a way of wringing drama from what might otherwise be a dull exercise in government finance.
A year ago, disputes between Executive John Lovick’s administration and a majority of the County Council almost caused the first county-level government shutdown in Washington’s history. A mid-December compromise prevented that from happening.
Expect a repeat of some of the same themes this fall as county leaders attempt to craft a budget for 2016. For a closer look, anyone can attend hearings about the executive’s proposed budget in council chambers at 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. A final budget vote is set for Nov. 23.
Lovick stands behind what he calls “a fiscally sound, solid budget.” He proposes a $228 million operating budget that adds about $2 million to this year’s plan. Council Chairman Dave Somers and two of his colleagues say the executive is putting county services in jeopardy by ignoring pressing financial realities.
Add to the mix Tuesday’s election, with the marquee contest between Lovick and Somers for the executive’s job.
Somers and Lovick issued dueling press releases about the budget last week, accusing the other side of providing incorrect information. Each blames the other for politicizing the process.
If the sides agree on anything, it’s that the county’s ill-fated courthouse project continues to cast a shadow over county finances. Plans for a $162 million, eight-story building across the street from the county’s administrative offices were abandoned earlier this year. A lawyer who was one of six business owners displaced from the dormant building site has since filed a $2 million damage claim against the county.
Lovick has said that “onerous parking requirements” from Everett and “imposed delays” have convinced him to put off the project for now.
“Such a climate of uncertainty and financial risk is unacceptable for any project, let alone one of this magnitude,” Lovick said during his Sept. 30 budget address. “We must do it right. Any project approved now that fails to meet the needs of the employees and the public who use it will be a disservice to our taxpayers.”
Lovick has advised the county to stop collecting $4 million of the $5.5 million in annual taxes raised to pay for courthouse construction bonds.
A pro-Lovick campaign mailer produced and paid for by the largest county-employee union has characterized the move as “a $4 million property tax refund.” It’s a tax cut, though, not a refund. If it were to materialize, property tax bills would go down by an average of $12.77 next year, Treasurer Kirke Sievers said. Nobody would receive a refund check from the county.
The remaining $1.5 million collected yearly in courthouse-related taxes would go toward emergency repairs “to keep the current courthouse on life support (not a remodel!) and to renovate the historic Mission Building” that adjoins the courthouse, according to a release from executive’s office spokeswoman Rebecca Hover.
Somers said it’s irresponsible to stop collecting taxes until the council settles on a plan.
“The council has not made a final decision on what it wants to do with the courthouse project … ” Somers said. “We need to do that before we go spending the money.”
Somers, along with Councilmen Ken Klein and Terry Ryan, say the county can no longer afford the $162 million plan. They do, however, want to consider less-expensive options such as a smaller replacement building or an addition. No decision is expected until next year.
Other potential sticking points:
The executive says his recommended budget factors in departments that are on track to overspend their 2015 budgets. Council staff contend that the executive’s plan fails to address nearly $1.7 million in overexpenditures.
The sides disagree over how soon the county needs to prepare for the potential loss of millions of dollars in sales tax collected from businesses at the Quil Ceda Village outlet mall if the Tulalip Tribes prevail in a federal lawsuit. Estimates of the effects have varied, but have recently been put at $6 million per year. Somers said the county needs to start planning now. Lovick’s office contends that county officials have been aware of the tribal sales-tax issue for years, that his office is monitoring the situation, and that no court decision is expected until 2017 or later.
They’re at odds over whether Lovick’s recommended budget sets aside enough money to pay for new union contracts currently under negotiation. Lovick says it does; Somers says it doesn’t.
The Snohomish County Council has scheduled two hearings Wednesday to discuss County Executive John Lovick’s proposed 2016 budget.
The first hearing is set for 10:30 a.m., the second for 6:30 p.m. The location for both is the eighth floor hearing room of the county’s Robert Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.
The county has scheduled a final budget hearing at the same place at 10:30 a.m. Nov. 23.