Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Add deputies and bump taxes a bit, executive proposes

Dave Somers’ Snohomish County budget proposal also would address traffic problems in neighborhoods.

EVERETT — Snohomish County would add five sheriff’s deputies and stave off most law enforcement cuts next year, with the help of a small property-tax bump, in a budget plan released Thursday.

County Executive Dave Somers’ $252 million operating budget would set aside more money for programs to ease neighborhood traffic problems and to help connect military veterans with public assistance. It also would allow the planning department to hire another code-enforcement officer.

“The budget I present today is fair, balanced and puts an emphasis on our key priorities,” Somers told a couple of hundred county employees who gathered for his speech.

The proposed operating budget is about $13 million higher than in 2017. Following recent trends, more than 70 percent of that money would go toward salaries and benefits. Public safety functions, including law enforcement, the courts and the jail, account for more than three-quarters of discretionary spending.

Highlights from the executive’s proposal include:

• Replacing outdated laptops for sheriff’s deputies and providing other technology upgrades for law enforcement.

• Adding about $200,000 to the county’s Veterans Assistance Fund, which provides housing, counseling and other forms of emergency assistance to eligible veterans. Total funding for the program would exceed $1 million.

• Launching an initiative to address gridlock on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis and build more sidewalks, especially near schools. That includes hiring another long-range planner and looking for better ways to serve fast-growing unincorporated areas, such as North Creek.

• Continuing a county program to streamline efficiency and provide better customer service.

• Expanding a program that teams up social workers and sheriff’s deputies to north Snohomish County, through a partnership with the city of Arlington.

• Bulking up cash reserves, to strengthen the county’s bond rating and rainy day fund.

While avoiding layoffs, Somers’ plan would cut vacant positions: six from the Denney Juvenile Justice Center, which is being restructured, and 12 from the sheriff’s work-release program, which was disbanded at the beginning of the year.

The county, by law, must pass a balanced budget.

County tax rolls are expected to grow somewhat, thanks to a building boom. But that’s not enough to offset a structural deficit. Salaries, benefits and other costs are rising faster than government revenues.

Medical benefit costs for Snohomish County government employees have been increasing about 7 percent per year, county finance director Nathan Kennedy said. Salaries for most of the county workforce are set to rise 2.5 percent next year, under the terms of union contracts.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County continues to have one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. It’s been adding about 40 people per day or 16,000 per year. About six in 10 of the new residents have landed in unincorporated areas, where the county is responsible for public safety, road construction and managing building activity.

The county population hovers around 790,000, with about 44 percent living outside cities.

To cover expenses, Somers is recommending a hike in the county’s general levy, to generate an extra $3.5 million next year. It would cost an extra $11.32 per year, or roughly 94 cents per month, for the owner of a home assessed at the countywide average of nearly $336,000.

Property owners in unincorporated areas also will see an increase in the roads levy, to the tune of $4.78. That works out to about 40 cents per month. It would raise another $623,000 for road and bridge projects.

General county services historically have made up a little more than 8 percent of homeowners’ overall property-tax bill. That’s similar to the percentage most pay toward fire protection and EMS. More than half of those taxes go toward schools. Smaller amounts pay for libraries and hospitals. The county roads levy in unincorporated areas amounts to about 5.6 percent of the total.

Separate from the county, a new state property tax is set to kick in next year to pay for education. That’s likely to add another $272 dollars or so to the average tax bill.

Somers’ proposed 2018 budget would fund 2,924 positions, up from 2,866 now. Most of the 58 new jobs would be funded through contracts with other agencies or by fee-supported departments run separately from the operating budget.

Total county revenues next year, including grants and nondiscretionary funds, are projected at $930 million.

It’s up to the five members of the County Council to review and amend Somers’ plan. The council typically passes a budget before Thanksgiving.

County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said he hopes to have an open dialogue with the executive about any changes.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we know how to bury the hatchet, we know how to move the ball forward,” Sullivan said during introductory remarks before Somers released his budget.

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

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