County Council irons out differences, passes 2015 budget

EVERETT — A series of compromises and contentious 3-2 votes ended Monday with the Snohomish County Council passing a budget, if barely.

Council members, near the end of a four-hour hearing, went back to their offices to figure out how to cope with a budget shortfall of more than $1 million, essentially on the fly.

“At the end of the day, it’s a balanced budget,” said Council chairman Dave Somers, who also had misgivings.

The $224 million operating budget passed 3-2. Joining Somers in supporting it were Councilmen Terry Ryan and Ken Klein. Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright opposed it.

The plan includes the rollback of some management raises and sets aside recent property-tax hikes to pay for a new courthouse. It bulks up cash reserves for emergencies and day-to-day needs.

The budget, as it stands, would ax a much-touted new management position from the Medical Examiner’s Office. It also would halve funding for a Snohomish Health District program that helps new moms.

The plan is destined for County Executive John Lovick’s desk in the coming days. The executive has 10 business days from receipt to sign or veto the plan.

Lovick’s deputy executive, Mark Ericks, said the administration would reserve comment until performing a closer analysis.

Sullivan, after the hearing, didn’t hesitate to express his displeasure.

“It’s very unfortunate,” he said. “I can’t vote for a budget that I really consider unsustainable. It takes the poorest and most vulnerable in the community and kicks them to the curb.”

Sullivan was most upset that a majority of the council opted to cut the county’s contribution to the Snohomish Health District’s First Steps program to $450,000 from $900,000. The program, where funding has long been in doubt, has served thousands of at-risk moms and newborn babies, who come to the health district for check ups until the infants’ first birthday.

The Health District plans to dip into budget reserves to keep the program going through next year, as they look for ways to sustain it over the long term, deputy director Peter Mayer said.

In council chambers Monday, tension was often palpable.

At one point, Sullivan said “it’s not my job” to balance the budget. Somers challenged him, saying that’s what all council members are supposed to do.

Reached after the hearing, Sullivan apologized.

“Of course it’s my job,” he said. “I said that out of frustration” for being excluded from drafting the budget.

The latest version of the budget is more than $1 million smaller than the plan Somers released a week ago. That’s largely because a majority of the council decided to keep the general property tax levy virtually unchanged next year — instead of adding the 1 percent tax increase allowed by state law. Many local cities add the extra 1 percent routinely, with little public attention. Klein, Sullivan and Wright opposed the higher tax, while Somers and Ryan supported it.

“For me it’s great, because there is no increase in taxes,” said Klein, the lone Republican on the council. “It keeps the executive accountable for increases” in the budget.

The extra 1 percent would have added about $2.53 to property-tax bills for a house assessed at the countywide average of $244,600. Both Somers’ and Lovick’s proposed budgets included the increase.

The latest version of the budget includes 1.5 percent across-the-board cuts for most county departments. The exceptions are the jail and Sheriff’s Office, which face cuts of about half that amount.

The budget Lovick prepared included no such cuts. Instead, it used $4.2 million in property taxes to bulk up various reserve funds, freeing up other cash for day-to-day expenses.

A majority of the council argued that those taxes were passed during past budget cycles specifically to pay for the courthouse — not other needs. The budget the council approved would keep that money in reserve for when the courthouse bonds come due in 2016. It could be used for other needs only if the $162 million building comes in under budget.

“The executive’s budget was unsustainable,” Ryan said.

The council also erased raises that Lovick’s administration had granted to six top managers, including Ericks and department directors. Council members originally questioned whether raises granted to 11 managers were allowed under county code.

The budget sprinkled taxes from real estate sales to a smattering of community projects. Mukilteo stands to get $250,000 in real-estate excise taxes to build ballfields at a future Boys &Girls Club facility; there was $200,000 for a youth recreation center in the Stillaguamish Valley; and $100,000 for upgrades at the county’s Meadowdale Beach Park.

The proposed budget abruptly cuts the position of the new director in charge of the county morgue. Dan Christman, a former Bothell police sergeant who started his job on Sept. 2, was expected to help stem management problems that had dogged the Medical Examiner’s Office for years. Since last year, the county has spent more than $600,000 to settle employee lawsuits that arose out of the office during the tenure of Dr. Norman Thiersch. The forensic pathologist resigned this fall.

“That department is the most top-heavy management department in the county,” said Ryan, who proposed cutting out the position.

Somers and Klein supported the move.

The county will long be dealing with expenses from March’s Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people. On Friday, the executive’s office asked the council to approve $4 million in related expenses. Somers worried that elected leaders didn’t have enough time to factor those costs into next year’s budget. Ericks contends that the expenses should have come as no surprise.

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

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