EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers is questioning the pared-down budget the County Council passed late last month, saying it sets up the potential for layoffs and other problems down the road.
Somers said he’s still weighing his options for how to respond to the minimalist spending plan for 2018. A veto would likely be symbolic, given that the council passed the budget with unanimous support and could override it. He also could sign it, or let it become law without his signature.
“I am very concerned about the budget,” Somers said in a prepared statement. “Put simply, it’s difficult to imagine how you can increase employees without increasing revenues. If it were your family’s budget, you cannot have more expenses without earning more money.”
The executive and his staff got their first look at the details Thursday. That was more than a week after the council, during a rare evening session following delays and recesses throughout the day, voted 5-0 for a plan that cut $3.6 million in spending from what Somers recommended earlier in the fall.
All versions of the budget added five new sheriff’s deputies and an extra code-enforcement officer. The council whittled away at expenses from a number of angles: by funding some new jobs for only part of the year, getting rid of vacant positions and substituting different revenue streams to take the burden off of property taxes.
Salaries, under contract, are set to rise by 2.5 percent or more next year for the county’s approximately 2,900 workers. Health care costs are going up even faster.
Before voting Nov. 21 on a final budget, two council members, Chairman Brian Sullivan and Terry Ryan, said they were uncomfortable with the cuts it would take to balance the budget without a property-tax bump. They favored a middle ground, which would have cut $1.8 million from Somers’ budget, while reducing the property-tax increase.
Despite his initial misgivings, Sullivan said he’s comfortable with where they landed.
“I honestly feel in my heart of hearts that this a responsible budget that came up 5-0,” he said. “It’s obviously veto-proof.”
Sullivan said it wouldn’t be a problem if some changes have to be made early next year.
Somers’ budget would have added $11.32 in property taxes next year on a house assessed at the countywide average of about $336,000. Sullivan’s budget cut that in half, to $5.66. During budget discussions, they often referred to Somers’ 4 percent property-tax increase and Sullivan’s 2 percent increase.
The “zero-increase budget” the council passed kept the general levy equal to 2017. The council budget did push up the roads levy for unincorporated areas by 1 percent. That will add less than $5 to next year’s property-tax bill for an average-valued home.
Nearly 69 percent of the operating budget of nearly $250 million pays for employees’ salaries and benefits. More than three-quarters goes toward policing, the jail, the court system and other parts of the criminal justice system.
The final council version set aside $100,000 to help clean up nuisance properties; put $100,000 toward a Snohomish Health District program to provide on-demand treatment for drug addicts; and directed $1 million in real-estate excise tax to a new project to house homeless people.
The council budget also added nearly $900,000 to the county’s cash reserves, which is less than what Somers recommended.
Councilman Sam Low said a strong economy has left county finances in good shape, without resorting to higher property taxes.
“Revenues are up,” he said. “Revenues are not declining.”
That’s true — for now. County finance officials last week had good tidings on a number of economic fronts. Sales tax is on track to come in $850,000 higher than forecast for 2017. Taxes on real-estate sales are up, too.
“We’re doing our best to live within our means,” Low said. “We respect that the revenues are coming in and we respect that the public wants us to live within our means.”
But Somers said that’s not enough to deal with the area’s breakneck growth.
“Snohomish County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country,” the executive said. “We expect to have 200,000 more residents in 20 years than we have today. Yet, the county currently has 128 fewer employees supported by the general fund than it had in 2008. This budget could magnify our financial problems and make it more difficult to fulfill our core responsibilities.”
Somers said he wants to work with council members to find “potential solutions to put us on a more sustainable path.”
Stay tuned for more on that front. Among other ideas, there’s a draft ordinance from Sullivan to prevent any county departments from filling a wide range of management jobs without the council’s approval.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.