Budget compromise averts county government shutdown

EVERETT — Snohomish County Council members united on Wednesday to pass a compromise version of the 2015 budget, averting the prospect of a government shutdown.

Council members voted 5-0 for an amendment package that added about $232,000 in funding each for the Sheriff’s Office and First Steps, a social services program for young mothers.

The give-and-take also resulted in more money for the county Medical Examiner’s Office, which is undergoing restructuring to address longstanding management problems. That included keeping the morgue’s deputy director, who on Jan. 1 stood to lose his job after a majority of the council abruptly erased his position.

“It’s been a tough process for all of us and I’m glad we’re able to move forward,” Executive John Lovick said after the vote.

The budget passage resolved an impasse between a majority of the council and Lovick’s administration. The council passed a $226 million spending plan before Thanksgiving on a 3-2 vote. Lovick vetoed that budget on Dec. 10, taking issue with several of the council’s cuts.

The council’s action on Wednesday made Lovick’s earlier budget veto moot.

The deal came after county staff members put in a week’s worth of long days to find common ground among elected officials. Neither side got everything it wanted.

“Every one of us has things in this budget that we like and that we don’t like,” council Chairman Dave Somers said.

A 1 percent hike in the county’s general tax levy raised about $820,000 to pay for services the council added Wednesday. The changes addressed concerns in Lovick’s veto letter. The property tax increase passed 4-1, with Republican Councilman Ken Klein opposed. Lovick and the other four council members are Democrats.

The tax hike will add about 20 cents per month to the property tax bills of a house assessed at the countywide average of $244,000.

Disputes over the budget and other issues have split the council into pro- and anti-Lovick factions. Somers earlier sided with Klein and Terry Ryan to form a majority opposition to Lovick’s proposals. Council members Stephanie Wright and Brian Sullivan supported the executive.

In the final budget, the Somers-led majority prevailed with a demand to reserve money raised by some specific property-tax increases to pay off bonds on a future county courthouse. Though all of the bonds aren’t likely to start coming due until 2016, Somers and others are worried about the $162 million project staying on budget.

The council majority also held fast on rolling back raises for a half-dozen managers in Lovick’s administration. They did agree to pay $25,000 to study appropriate salary levels.

The final version of the budget cut an inclusion manager job that’s been vacant in the executive’s office for more than a year; added back $28,000 that the council had cut from the salary of the county’s trade and economic development director, Sean Connell; and revived a budget analyst’s position that the council had removed from the executive’s office.

“I am glad that we could reach a budget compromise that restores funding to public safety, economic development and other vital services,” Wright said.

While the budget passed, it is unclear whether council members and Lovick’s administration will overcome a breakdown in communication that has resulted in testy exchanges recently.

The anti-Lovick bloc on the council agreed earlier this month to spend $15,000 to hire an attorney to investigate comments allegedly made by Lovick’s top administrator, Deputy Executive Mark Ericks. The three councilmen contend that Ericks threatened them and created a hostile environment. Lovick says his own investigation didn’t support the threat claims.

On Friday, Sullivan sent a letter to all of his council colleagues and The Daily Herald criticizing Somers’ leadership.

When voting for the new budget on Wednesday some councilmembers praised Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe for “shuttle diplomacy,” working as a go-between to resolve differences between the sides.

After the budget was adopted Wednesday, Lovick pledged to do his part to improve the atmosphere.

“We’re going to do everything we can from our office to have a good relationship,” Lovick said. “The public expects this from us and the public demands this from us.”

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

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