County Council’s cost cutting efforts resisted by some

Seven department heads have expressed concerns about strategies intended to keep spending in check.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council has been taking steps to rein in costs across county government, after passing a yearly budget that mostly held the line against new property taxes.

Other elected officials have called their approach ineffective. They contend that moves such as restricting hiring for open management jobs, or doing away with some managers’ merit-based pay increases, will hinder their ability to run the government — without saving any money.

“If you felt there was a financial crisis or a financial issue, that was your opportunity and your role in the budget process to make changes,” county Auditor Carolyn Weikel said. “And you chose not to.”

Weikel made the comments during a council hearing earlier this month. She was among seven department leaders who signed a letter expressing concerns. The others were Executive Dave Somers, Sheriff Ty Trenary, Assessor Linda Hjelle, Clerk Sonya Kraski, Prosecutor Mark Roe and a deputy for Treasurer Kirke Sievers.

“Simply put, the proposed ordinance will not provide realistic or significant general fund savings,” the letter states. It urged the council not to pass an ordinance requiring council approval to fill certain non-union positions known as “management exempt.” Normally, those decisions are handled within departments.

The letter also questions whether the council may have violated the separation of powers among different branches of government, as outlined in the county charter.

The council did pass the hiring restriction, unanimously. They did so after exempting judges’ law clerks and deputy directors in independent county departments. In all, it affects about 88 management positions out of the approximately 1,500 total jobs supported by the operating budget. There was no estimate for how much money the restriction would save.

Salaries and benefits account for more than 70 percent of spending in the county’s general fund.

The County Council in November unanimously passed a new budget without increasing the county’s general property-tax levy. They did raise the roads levy for unincorporated areas by the standard 1 percent allowed by law.

New construction and tax money have grown over the past year, but not enough to make up for the rising cost of salaries, benefits and other expenses.

The $249 million plan was about $3.6 million lower than what Somers recommended earlier in the fall. The council avoided layoffs. At the same time, they added positions, including at least five new sheriff’s deputies and an extra code-enforcement officer. To make up the difference, they dipped into some one-time revenues, and said more budget actions would follow in 2018.

Councilman Brian Sullivan, who led the budget process last fall, said the small-scale moves are meant to avoid more disruptive measures, such as layoffs.

“I don’t want to put people on the street,” Sullivan said. “Why use a sledgehammer when we have a Wiffle ball bat?”

Sullivan said he’s been hearing from analysts about the likelihood of a recession next year.

“When that recession hits, we’ll be ready,” he said.

Councilman Terry Ryan added, “We’re just trying to get in front of this.”

Weikel wasn’t the only elected official who spoke against the restricted hiring ordinance earlier this month. Kraski, the county clerk, thanked the council for exempting some positions from the freeze. But she also said she believed they were using too broad a brush.

“I am concerned why we are so quickly after the budget now coming back to address a hiring freeze on some key positions,” she said. “I know that the ordinance is likely directed at maybe some specific departments.”

She asked the council to take up any specific issues with the departments in question.

The belt-tightening may have caused some internal disagreements, but it could also keep county officials out of another fray. Snohomish County homeowners are bracing for property-tax bills that are set to rise by 16 percent, on average, compared to 2017. Increases of more than 20 percent are due to hit property owners in the cities of Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Brier. The change is being driven by a new state education levy, as well as local factors. This year’s increase comes on top of Sound Transit 3, a voter-approved ballot measure that pushed up taxes in Everett and southwest Snohomish County, starting last year, to pay for regional transit expansion.

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

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