Lovick vetoes county budget, which could lead to partial shutdown

EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive John Lovick vetoed the County Council’s version of the 2015 budget Wednesday, citing a long list of disagreements.

Although he’ll face opposition, the veto has a good chance of sticking.

Lovick challenged the council’s decision to halve funding for a program that serves young mothers and the elimination of some jobs. The executive also accused the council of unfairly singling out some of his employees for “ridicule and humiliation.”

“The budget does not reflect our values,” Lovick said shortly after sending his veto letter.

If the council and executive can’t reach agreement, the budget impasse could lead to a partial government shutdown come Jan. 1.

County Council members plan to spend the next few days poring over budget documents. They are scheduled to meet Monday to work on a new spending plan.

“I’m really disappointed,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “We presented John (Lovick) a balanced budget that was sustainable. We sent him a good budget.”

The council passed its budget on a 3-2 vote.

The council can override a veto, but only if it can muster at least four votes. That’s highly unlikely given current divisions on the council.

Councilmen Terry Ryan and Ken Klein have consistently supported Somers on contentious votes, while council members Brian Sullivan and Stephanie Wright have sided with Lovick.

Things have turned nasty in recent weeks with the council splitting along the same lines on spending $15,000 to hire an attorney to investigate comments attributed to Lovick’s second-in-command, Mark Ericks. Some on the council say they were threatened. Lovick says they are overreacting.

The $224 million spending plan the council passed Nov. 24 made significant changes to the budget Lovick recommended earlier this fall. Among the biggest changes were setting aside more than $4 million to pay for the county’s future $162 million courthouse. That limited the money available to spend, and resulted in some cuts that weren’t in Lovick’s plan.

The first reason Lovick gave for rejecting the council budget was the reduction of funding for the Snohomish Health District’s First Steps Program to $450,000 from $900,000.

The program, where funding has long been in doubt, has served thousands of at-risk moms and newborns, who come to the health district for checkups until the infants’ first birthday.

Somers and others council members who supported the cut said they were acting on recommendations from an advisory board. The Health District this week voted to dip into reserves to maintain the program through next year.

Lovick’s veto also focused on the council’s abrupt decision to cut a new Medical Examiner’s Office manager out of the budget.

Dan Christman, a former Bothell police sergeant with forensics training, was tasked with stemming management problems that had festered at the county morgue for years. Since last year, the county has spent more than $600,000 to settle employee lawsuits during the tenure of Dr. Norman Thiersch. The forensic pathologist resigned this fall.

Christman also reportedly made comments about council members they found problematic. Those who voted to eliminate his job contend that was necessary because the office is top heavy with managers.

“The deputy director was hired Sept. 1 as a change agent after many years of turbulence and costly litigation settlements within the department,” Lovick’s letter says. “Elimination of this position halts reform efforts that are underway and reorganization of the department according to best practice.”

Elsewhere in the letter, Lovick accuses the council of singling out some executive’s office employees for “public ridicule and humiliation.”

That’s a clear reference to the council majority’s ongoing effort to eliminate raises that Lovick’s administration awarded to some of the county’s highest-paid managers — including Ericks.

Council members originally questioned 11 raises and ended up erasing six of them in the recent budget.

“These rollbacks open the door for various discrimination claims and damages, including the prospect of hiring outside counsel due to internal conflicts of interest,” Lovick wrote.

A majority of the council maintains that the raises violate county rules for approving pay hikes.

“They are essentially trying to shove those through without complying with the county code,” Somers said.

Lovick’s letter also calls out council members for eliminating the county’s inclusion manager position, which has remained vacant for more than a year. The executive says the job plays a necessary role in addressing diversity issues.

To fund programs that the council stripped from the budget, Lovick suggested approving a 1 percent property tax increase. That would raise a little more than $800,000 next year.

Somers contends that extra revenue wouldn’t come close to funding the government programs Lovick is asking the council to support.

“What he’s putting forward in revenue doesn’t match what he’s asking for in spending,” Somers said.

The property tax increase was removed from the budget when Sullivan and Wright aligned with the council’s lone Republican, Klein, to vote it down. Somers and Ryan supported the increase. It would have added an estimated $2.53 onto the tax bill for a house assessed at the countywide average of $244,600.

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

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