By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon offered some brief glimpses of optimism Friday when he proposed a 2013 budget plan, in contrast with the pain and sacrifice of some recent budget cycles.
As in the past, Reardon avoided proposing any new property tax increases. He also drew attention to road and airport infrastructure projects intended to brighten the county’s economic future.
The executive made it clear the economy remains sluggish and the county must manage itself accordingly.
“The budget I present today is marked by necessary restraint and discipline,” Reardon said. “Our resources are limited and our spending plans must be, as well … (T)his discipline is key to our ability to continue making important investments in our community’s economy and infrastructure.”
Reardon’s plan for 2013 includes an operating budget, also called the general fund, of slightly over $211 million. That’s an increase of nearly 2.4 percent compared to last year’s $206 million. Overall, the county expects to provide about $650 million in services.
It’ll be up to the County Council to examine Reardon’s budget and suggest changes between now and late November.
The council plans to host its first public forum on the budget at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9, followed by hearings later in the month.
For one councilman, Reardon’s budget address failed to clarify just what’s on the table for next year.
“I think he could have provided a little more detail in his speech,” Councilman John Koster said. “It was vague in general. If that was his intent, he accomplished it.”
During his budget address at the county campus, Reardon reminded his audience that public safety costs have continued to grow, as a raft of other government functions compete for dollars.
He said the county’s operating budget contributes $54 million more to public safety than it did in 2001. Funding for all other parts of the operating budget not devoted to public safety has increased by only $2 million, Reardon said, while the county’s population has grown by more than 100,000.
“This includes services that provide for veterans and seniors, park operations, community development, elections and all of the basic internal services that keep our county operational,” Reardon said. “Put another way, for every new tax dollar generated by economic growth since 2001, 90 cents of that dollar has gone directly to the law-and-justice system with only 10 cents left over to provide every other general-fund service.”
In May, Reardon pitched a new 0.1 percent sales tax as a way to bolster the county’s finances for law-and-justice services. The executive’s proposal failed to gain much traction among other elected leaders.
“Without this dedicated funding, which I believe voters would have supported, we will continue to face increased challenges in all other county service areas in the coming years,” Reardon said Friday.
Reardon said he was able to craft a balanced 2013 budget without adding taxes.
“It begs the question, did he really need to raise taxes in the first place?” Koster said.
Reardon highlighted the fact that about 73 percent of the county’s operating budget goes toward public safety and the courts.
Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said that’s similar to what other counties spend.
“If you look at every county across the nation, that’s what it is,” Sullivan said.
He added, “The core function of government is public safety; that’s what we do.”
Sullivan will take a leading role in reworking Reardon’s proposal. He has said he’s considering an increase to the county’s general property-tax levy. A 1 percent increase would take in more than $700,000. It would add $2.24 per year to the property tax bill for a home assessed for about $240,000, which is the county average, according to council staff.
Reardon’s budget for 2013 includes roughly 2,682 full-time-equivalent positions. That’s 31 more than in 2012.
The sheriff’s office would add more than 15 positions in 2013. Those aren’t new jobs, though. They’re positions the sheriff’s office added after contracting to provide police services in the city of Snohomish, which disbanded its city police force effective Jan. 1.
The county planning department — the hardest hit by the recession — has finally started to benefit from an increase in building activity. It stands to gain nearly 17 positions in Reardon’s budget.
The Human Services Department would lose more than five positions.
Reardon on Friday said that the county has focused on supporting the aerospace industry so it can continue to provide jobs well into the future. To help that effort, Reardon said nearly $200 million in public and private construction projects are under way at Paine Field, the county-run airport.
Part of that work is a $30 million facility at Paine Field called the Dreamlifter Operations Center. The county is building it for use by the Boeing Co. and expects to recoup construction costs from Boeing through a market-rate lease.
In his speech, Reardon adopted a conciliatory tone. He appeared more at ease than during other public appearances this year as he has been dogged by controversy stemming from allegations raised by a female county employee and high school classmate of Reardon’s who accused the executive, who is married, of spending money on her during out-of-town business trips.
A Washington State Patrol criminal investigation into alleged misuse of public funds ended in June without charges being filed. The state elections watchdog has an open investigation into whether Reardon used taxpayer resources to benefit his 2011 re-election campaign.
Things became especially tense in county government in February when the County Council asked Reardon to take administrative leave until the patrol had finished investigating. He didn’t.
Before Friday’s speech, Reardon took time to chat with some of those same council members, offering handshakes and pats on the back.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.