It’s time to reset priorities

The one-size-fits-all cut applied to the Snohomish County budget last week is, as County Council member John Koster said, “a lousy way to manage the budget.” He got no argument from Council Chairman Dave Gossett, who warned that more pain is likely next year in the face of falling tax revenues.

Departments across county government are being asked to slice their budgets by nearly 2.6 percent to make up for a shortfall of $3.6 million and to keep cash reserves from running too low.

It’s a rational move in the middle of a budget cycle, but not a strategy that can continue into the next one. And Koster’s point is valid: It’s necessary now because difficult decisions were put off last year.

With revenues expected to remain flat, and annexations lowering the population in unincorporated areas, the county budget must be reduced to a “new normal.” Elected leaders are going to have to weigh the necessity of every service county government provides, eliminating functions that aren’t essential or otherwise mandated by law.

Some departments, such as courts, the jail, elections and the assessor, don’t have their workload reduced by annexations. Others, including the Sheriff’s Office, are left with less territory to cover. The recent annexations in Marysville and Lake Stevens, for example, took more than 30,000 residents out of the sheriff’s service area. It’s not unreasonable, over time, to expect a commensurate reduction in jobs.

District court probation officers are being laid off in this round of cuts, which will mean less guidance for defendants into needed treatment programs. When that’s happening, it’s hard to justify funding Washington State University extension programs and senior centers. Which is the greater priority?

A more surgical approach is needed moving forward. Departments that are carrying non-essential or redundant positions, including the Executive’s Office and the County Council, should be planning for life without them. Services that aren’t required by law should be cut back or eliminated. Citizens already put off about waiting longer for some services, or going elsewhere for them, will have to get used to it.

Furloughs can serve their purpose in a budget emergency, but we’re past that. For the county, the new normal will be smaller. Denial and delay won’t change that eventuality, but it will prolong the pain and uncertainty.

Across-the-board cuts don’t make for effective government. Objective priority setting does. It’s hard, thankless work, and in this case will require courageous leadership, sacrifice and probably a lot of sleepless nights.

Done right, it will result in a county government with a clearer mission that citizens can count on. That’s what leaders are elected to deliver.