Gadgets bring in budget feedback

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

Ask Snohomish County residents to talk about government spending on a Tuesday night, and this is what you will see: an audience dominated by people over 50 who are by and large in a good mood and who worry most about growth management, public safety and road construction.

That’s what county officials learned, courtesy of instant polling technology placed in the hands of more than 100 people drawn to learn and speak about the county’s proposed 2002 budget.

The gathering was the first chance for public input on county executive Bob Drewel’s budget and spending priorities.

The results, measured by hand-held gadgets people used to enter responses, showed that people were most concerned about several topics that have dominated local political debates. Growth and its management topped the list, nearly tied with police, the jail and courts, and a bit ahead of transportation.

That was welcome news for Pam Adan. The criminal justice student at Everett Community College showed up with her young grandson to urge county leaders to set aside money for public safety agencies.

"They were very surprised," she said, interpreting how county leaders reacted to the results.

It was the county officials’ first try at the polling technology.

Several other people, however, took the opportunity after the meeting to let officials know they had a concern about tax increases, an issue touched on little by the poll.

"I’m not for the increase at all," said Bryan Heath, a 35-year-old restaurant cook, as he listened to the presentation.

The audience couldn’t be called a true cross-section of the county. In addition to being older than the county as a whole, the audience was dotted with community leaders, including Everett Mayor Ed Hansen, the commander of Naval Station Everett, the head of the Snohomish County Labor Council and the lead proponent of a new county initiative.

County officials, meanwhile, used the meeting to pitch their budget proposal and engage the audience in a public finance lesson.

Drewel, reiterating much of his budget address, said his plan was an austere one, largely aimed at holding steady in the midst of an economic downturn and growing spending pressures.

The county’s overall spending would rise to $546 million, an increase of 12.7 percent in the coming year under Drewel’s plan. But assistant finance director Roger Neumaier noted that the bulk of that increase comes from major construction projects and the costs of paying of debts related to the construction.

Those projects, Neumaier said, would draw on existing tax dollars or user fees. That includes an expanded jail, a new administration building and parking garage, a new transfer station for garbage and an overhaul of another one.

Subtract those one-time construction projects, and overall spending rises 4.1 percent, he said, just slightly over the increase in the consumer price index, a common measure of inflation.

To pay those bills, the budget seeks a 1.9 percent increase in general property taxes. It also calls for a 6 percent increase in a tax assessed to property outside cities to pay for road work.

In addition, Drewel also plans to seek voter approval of a one-tenth of a penny sales tax increase to pay two-thirds of the cost of running the expanded jail.

Neither the specific spending nor taxing measures were put to the audience during a poll. But the county council will soon open the floor for public comment.

The council is scheduled to hold public hearings on the budget starting Nov. 19, said council chairman Dave Somers. He also invited the public to attend earlier meetings of different council committees that will review the budget in detail.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

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