Snohomish County administration buildings are seen Thursday in Everett. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Snohomish County administration buildings are seen Thursday in Everett. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Snohomish County budget shortfall could top $26 million

Officials are considering a hiring freeze and other steps to offset the pandemic’s economic impacts.

EVERETT — Snohomish County is weighing a hiring freeze and other belt-tightening as officials grapple with an impending revenue shortfall that could exceed $26 million.

The county’s roughly $260 million general fund budget may need to be slashed by 10% or more to offset the financial blows of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Friday news release from the county.

“These are unique times, and they call for preemptive action on the part of Snohomish County,” county Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “With so many people thrust out of work and many industries shutting down, we cannot have business-as-usual in the county.”

A budget analysis pegged the fiscal impact of the crisis at $24 million — the equivalent of pay and benefits for about 220 county employees.

But the estimates are very preliminary, county spokesman Kent Patton stressed..

Sales tax revenue, which will take a hit during the economic downturn, accounts for more than $70 million of the county’s general fund budget.

On Wednesday, the County Council will consider two hiring freeze proposals. One would last through the end of the year and make a wide range of exceptions, including positions within the sheriff’s office and prosecuting attorney’s office. Another, which would last 60 days, makes no explicit exceptions but outlines a process for the council to fill any vacancies that are “fiscally sustainable and necessary.”

“This is one of the best and quickest ways to belt-tighten,” said Councilwoman Megan Dunn, who supports the 60-day hiring freeze proposal. “We’re also hoping to avoid any layoffs.”

The two-month hiring freeze would allow the county to revisit the measure when staff get a better picture of how the coronavirus crisis will affect the bottom line, said council Chairman Nate Nehring, who proposed the 60-day measure.

“Right now, we’re just looking at estimates or projections for what our revenue shortfalls are going to look like,” Nehring said. “But we’ll actually have some data in 60 days.”

Councilman Sam Low also expressed support for Nehring’s proposal at a recent meeting.

Councilwoman Stephanie Wright, who introduced the proposal for the hiring freeze that would last through the end of the year, said she incorporated the exceptions because she wants to ensure that local law enforcement staffing needs are met during the pandemic.

“Even if this was over in a month or two, the effects will be all year. I just don’t see us getting to a point where we don’t have to be conservative about hiring,” she said at the council’s March 30 meeting.

The county is also considering other steps, including nixing discretionary raises and canceling travel and training, according to the news release.

More than 75 percent of the general fund budget goes to law and justice agencies, so “any cuts will have impacts across the board,” the news release said.

“We want there to be no illusions about what may be coming, if the worst economic forecasts become reality,” Somers said in his statement. “We will cut our budget and adapt our operations with our eyes wide open.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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