Bright outlook from Lovick on county finances

EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive John Lovick gives a sunnier outlook for county finances than the gloom that other officials forecast last month.

A memo Lovick sent to the County Council and news outlets Wednesday touts the county’s low unemployment rate, strong bond rating and a “high quality of life to those who choose to live, work and play here.”

“We’re having the same challenges that every other county is having and we’re addressing them,” Lovick said.

Lovick’s letter does acknowledge the county faces real financial challenges. And some, such as the cost of responding to the Oso mudslide, are unique. Others issues include the potential loss of $5 million in yearly tax revenue from businesses at Quil Ceda Village because of a pending lawsuit by the Tulalip Tribes, the imperiled courthouse project in downtown Everett, and rising costs for employee health care and wages.

Lovick’s memo came a week after he clashed with council members over a new union contract.

In his memo, Lovick said the council’s action threatens progress toward keeping employee health care costs in check.

County Councilman Ken Klein criticized Lovick’s response for avoiding specifics on how to balance the books. Unfortunately, a strong overall economy hasn’t translated into rich county coffers, Klein said.

“It’s the unfortunate part we need to worry about,” he said.

The executive’s office highlighted the county’s strong financial rating from Moody’s Investors Service.

The ratings agency also mentions problems for the county, such as weak budget reserves and big capital projects.

“If you look at the long term, you’re going to see that the county has some significant financial challenges ahead of us and we have to do something about it,” Klein said.

Lovick is preparing to roll out his recommended budget in September. Final decisions rest with the County Council.

Lovick is campaigning for re-election against Council Chairman Dave Somers. The two Democrats are set to face off Nov. 3.

In his role as council chairman, Somers last month demanded that Lovick’s administration answer a series of budget questions. Lovick’s memo is a response.

Somers said he felt a sense of urgency because of looming votes that would have gotten construction under way on a new $162 million county courthouse.

The council postponed taking action on the courthouse.

Construction was supposed to begin this month, but that now appears doubtful. Courthouse plans may be shelved for now or resurrected as a less expensive plan.

Council members could choose to move the building to a site other than the one where they’d condemned a half-dozen businesses to make space.

The Everett City Council also has balked at approving a parking agreement the county needs before starting construction.

“Frankly, it’s in the hands of the city of Everett right now,” Lovick said of the courthouse project.

About three-quarters of the county budget goes to fund the criminal justice system.

The county’s current operating budget is $226 million. Number crunchers on Wednesday projected it could be overspent $2.7 million by year’s end if adjustments aren’t made.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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