County Council delays vote on hiring freeze

EVERETT — Snohomish County Council members decided Wednesday to wait another week before voting on a hiring freeze to give themselves time to examine unintended consequences.

The pause came after Sheriff Ty Trenary, Clerk Sonya Kraski and Auditor Carolyn Weikel spoke of problems a freeze could create in running their departments.

Trenary said putting a halt to new hiring would hurt his ability to recruit good employees. Kraski said the freeze would put her office at a disadvantage because lower pay has already left her staff facing high turnover. Weikel said her office relies on temporary employees to run elections.

“What I’m hearing today is that there are some things we haven’t thought of,” Councilman Brian Sullivan said.

Sullivan, who proposed the freeze last month, said he still favors it as a way for the council to manage the budget. The county executive recommends an annual budget, but final authority for financial decisions rests with the council.

The council plans to reconsider the freeze at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The county has nearly 2,800 budgeted positions, though as many as 40 percent could be exempted from the freeze. Exclusions in the current proposal apply to employees who perform essential health and safety functions. Managers defined under county code would be exempted as well.

The council could expand the list to allow managers to fill positions funded through state or federal grants. They’re likely to allow the auditor to hire temporary election employees, too.

“If we’re going to exempt everyone who has made a good argument that they should be exempted, then we would not be doing a hiring freeze, essentially,” said Councilman Ken Klein, who opposes the move.

Klein would prefer to wait on Executive John Lovick’s recommendations for the 2016 budget. That announcement is expected by the end of the month.

Law and justice functions account for 73.5 percent of Snohomish County’s current $226 million operating budget. That includes sheriff’s deputies, jail staff, the courts and attorneys. Those are among the top functions likely to be left out of any hiring moratorium.

How much money the move would save remains uncertain.

The county last enacted a hiring freeze in 2008 and extended it through 2010. It was projected to save $300,000 in 2009.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers said he’s inclined to support the freeze, even if its value lies more in the message than in dollars saved. Somers has been sounding the alarm about the county budget as he competes against Lovick for the executive’s job in November.

The county faces financial pressure from rising labor costs and uncompensated expenses from the Oso mudslide response, among other factors. A pending federal lawsuit, if successful, could prevent the county from receiving about $5 million in yearly sales tax from businesses at the Tulalip Tribes’ Quil Ceda Village.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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