County Council to vote on mostly symbolic hiring freeze

EVERETT — Snohomish County Council members are set to vote Wednesday on imposing a hiring freeze for government employees, in another sign of unease over finances.

The move might put other leaders on notice, but the main effect would be symbolic.

“I don’t know that it’s going to save us that much money, but I think it would be a good idea as we go into budget season,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said.

The County Council is scheduled to take up the issue at a hearing set for 10:30 a.m. The proposed freeze would last through the end of the year.

The county most recently imposed a hiring freeze in 2008, when the recession began to take a toll. It remained in effect through 2010.

County Councilman Brian Sullivan proposed the hiring freeze Aug. 26. Council members originally discussed passing it as an emergency measure, but decided to wait.

Councilwoman Stephanie Wright argued for treating the situation as an emergency: “Time is money. The longer we wait on this action the more people are hired. I do worry that these are people making life decisions and that those decisions might not be included in next year’s budget.”

The county employs about 2,800 workers, but many are excluded from the proposed freeze.

As written, the freeze would not apply to sheriff’s deputies, jail corrections officers and others who play an essential role in public safety. Also off-limits are several key managers. The council would have leeway for exempt positions when they’re necessary to comply with legal mandates or to fulfill a state or federal grant.

The criminal justice system accounts for nearly three-quarters of the county’s current $226 million annual operating budget. It’s hard to see where else the county could make meaningful cuts.

The percentage spent on the criminal justice system is in line with what King County spends and less than what Pierce County does.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said it’s often costlier to cover 24-hour operations with fewer employees.

“We’re really at a place where we feel like our best opportunity to save money and to save taxpayers money is to really be as fully staffed as we can to reduce our overtime costs,” Trenary said.

Some department heads told the County Council this week that they’re already operating under self-imposed hiring freezes to meet budget and that’s already compromised basic services.

County Executive John Lovick is expected to recommend a 2016 budget toward the end of the month. The County Council typically passes a final budget by Thanksgiving.

The budget has become a campaign issue as Lovick runs for re-election this fall against Somers.

Councilman Ken Klein isn’t sold on the hiring freeze, saying he’d prefer to wait for the executive’s budget recommendations.

“I’m a little confused on the timing of it,” Klein said. “We have the budget delivered to us in two weeks. We should have a pretty good sense of where the county stands globally at that point.”

Although the economy remains healthy and unemployment holds at a low 4.4 percent, the county faces potential trouble on several fronts.

Challenges include rising labor costs, reimbursements for Oso mudslide-related expenses and a federal lawsuit that could stop the county from receiving $5 million in yearly sales tax revenue from businesses at the Tulalip Tribes’ Quil Ceda Village.

The financial worries were largely responsible for county leaders’ recent decision to abandon near-term plans for building an eight-story, $162 million courthouse in downtown Everett. They’re now examining less expensive alternatives.

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

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