No surprises expected in Lovick’s first county budget

EVERETT — Don’t expect any eye-popping tax increases or drastic reshuffling of personnel when Snohomish County Executive John Lovick delivers his first budget address today.

You can, however, count on some new measures for improving accountability. That includes creating an independent ombudsman position empowered to recommend more efficient, customer-friendly ways to run county government.

Other priorities Lovick plans to highlight are mental health awareness and pedestrian safety near elementary schools.

Overall, there’s not much room for growth, despite an improving economy.

“It’s more of a hold-the-line budget,” Deputy Executive Mark Ericks said.

Lovick is scheduled to give his budget speech at 11 a.m. in the first-floor meeting room of the county’s Bob Drewel Building on 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett. The event is open to the public.

This year’s address is bound to be a little different from those of the past decade, during the tenure of former County Executive Aaron Reardon. Lovick took office June 3, following Reardon’s resignation.

Reardon’s speeches often surprised other elected leaders with proposals they were hearing for the first time, and which often got nixed as the council reworked the executive’s plan weeks after the soundbites. While crafting the 2010 budget, Reardon recommended saving money by having most county employees take 15 furlough days, a number the County Council winnowed down to five.

Earlier this month, executive and council finance staff got together to compare revenue numbers. Lovick’s team members briefed their council counterparts on what to expect.

“I had our staff work with their staff,” Ericks said.

Among the few new positions Lovick is likely to propose is the ombudsman.

The person appointed to that job will have the authority to hear public complaints and solve problems people might have encountered. That might include obtaining permits or licenses from the county.

Some aspects of the ombudsman’s job would resemble those of the county’s performance auditor, which was defunded, while others mirror constituent services often performed by elected leaders.

“It has an air of independence, the ability to solve problems,” Ericks said.

Safeguards will be in place to make sure the position serves everybody in the county to avoid getting mired in petty complaints such as gripes from county jail inmates about the food they’re served. Serious jail issues, including health and safety problems now under review, would be fair game.

The ombudsman post would be management level, Ericks said, with a corresponding salary likely in the low six figures. Before anyone is hired, a consultant would be brought in to help outline the ombudsman’s role and otherwise define the job.

“We’re going to do this, see if it works, and measure the value,” Ericks said.

The county’s 2013 budget provided for nearly 2,700 budgeted positions. That $213 million spending plan passed with a 3-2 council majority. It included a 3 percent increase in the county’s general fund levy, adding nearly 3 cents per $1,000 of assessed value onto homeowners’ property-tax bills.

The money helped fill two dozen vacant criminal justice jobs. Another aim was to rebuild the county courthouse. At the time the 2013 budget passed, there was a plan to remodel the county’s 1967 courthouse.

Early this year, county leaders decided instead to build a new criminal justice center, believing the project would cost about $75 million.

After Lovick’s administration reviewed the project, they determined it would take a lot more — $110 million to $145 million — to build an adequate facility that would meet the county’s needs as the population increases.

Ericks said the executive’s budget doesn’t call for raising taxes to pay for courthouse construction, but it does leave open the possibility. That decision hinges in large part on where the future courthouse is built and the features included.

A likely source of additional revenue would be the county’s general property tax levy.

The County Council typically passes a reworked version of the executive’s budget by Thanksgiving. A series of public meetings will precede the vote.

The executive has veto authority over the council’s changes.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Budget speech

Snohomish County Executive John Lovick is scheduled to deliver his first budget speech at 11 a.m. Friday. It’s set to take place in the first floor meeting room of the county’s Bob Drewel Building on 3000 Rockefeller Ave.

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