County council works to avoid ‘nightmare’ of possible shutdown

EVERETT — Snohomish County lawmakers are preparing to mull a series of compromises Wednesday to avoid a crisis.

Failing to act could earn the county a dubious distinction as the first in Washington to suffer a government shutdown because elected leaders couldn’t agree on a budget.

“It’s absolutely essential that we pass a budget tomorrow,” Council chairman Dave Somers said Tuesday. “If we go beyond that, it’s going to be a nightmare.”

A majority of the County Council, Somers said, appears ready to raise property taxes to pay for services that Executive John Lovick said are necessary in his Dec. 10 veto letter. The veto nullified a spending plan for 2015 that the council passed on a 3-2 vote.

To make the new budget stick, at least four of the five councilmembers must agree. The discussion — and a possible vote — is scheduled during the council’s regular meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday. That’s the last day the council can raise property taxes in time to appear on next year’s tax rolls.

The deadline to pass the entire budget is Dec. 31. If that doesn’t happen, the county stands to lose its statutory authority to carry out anything but mandatory and essential functions under state law.

Sheriff’s deputies would still respond to 911 calls, but many other county functions would cease.

Document recording functions at the county Auditor’s Office would likely continue — but at a much slower pace. That would be a huge blow to the real estate industry, threatening home sales and other transactions.

Issuing building permits, pet licenses, concealed weapons permits and some business licenses are other services that might fall by the wayside during a shutdown.

To prevent that from happening, Somers said he and other council members have discussed raising property taxes by 1 percent. That would add approximately $820,000 to the council’s $226 million operating budget. The tax hike would cost an extra $2.53 per year for the owner of a house assessed at the countywide average of $244,000.

A little over half of the money from the tax increase could be used to blunt the effect of budget cuts at the sheriff’s office and the jail in the council budget that Lovick vetoed.

Alternatively, $450,000 of the tax increase could restore funding for a program that the Snohomish Health District runs for mothers and newborns. The council budget cut funding for the First Steps program to $450,000 from $900,000. The health district already voted to maintain First Steps through 2015 by dipping into budget reserves.

The compromise also could restore the deputy director job at the Medical Examiner’s Office. A council majority cut it abruptly at the end of the year, leaving the county morgue essentially leaderless. Lovick said the move would cripple the office.

Somers’ proposal also would restore a finance analyst position the council cut from the budget. It would fully fund the salary for the county’s economic development director, whose pay the council cut by $28,000.

“I’m going to ask the other council members to support this,” Somers said. “There are things in it I don’t like, but that’s the nature of a compromise.”

A majority of the council appears ready to stand firm on another point of contention: rolling back raises for six top managers in Lovick’s administration. They are the deputy executive, human resources director, parks director, the facilities director and two top finance managers. Some council members contend the executive’s office failed to follow county code in approving the pay increases. Lovick says they’re wrong.

A majority of the council also looks prepared to stand firm on their demand that the county use money from specific property-tax increases for their stated purpose — paying off bonds for a future $162 million courthouse. They’re worried about the project staying on budget. The money amounts to a little over $4 million per year.

Lovick, in his budget, proposed using that tax money for other needs, reasoning that bonds for the future courthouse wouldn’t come due until 2016.

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

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