EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers has vetoed an ordinance the County Council approved earlier this year to limit hiring in some non-union government jobs.
In a letter signed Wednesday, Somers said the veto was “necessary because the ordinance not only erodes the relationship between the council and those who are elected to run the government, but it also fails to improve the budget problems it was enacted to resolve.”
Somers wrote: “We cannot spend time considering cosmetic changes that don’t get at the root of our problem.”
It’s the first time the executive has wielded his veto pen since taking office two years ago.
The council passed the ordinance 5-0 on Jan. 17. The legislation requires the council’s permission to advertise or fill any vacant positions classified as “management exempt.” The council could grant approval if it deems the job necessary and there’s money to pay for it.
“This ordinance is the first of several initiatives council is pursuing so we can get ahead of our tightening budgets as opposed to waiting until the next annual budget cycle,” Councilman Terry Ryan said in a newsletter that went out Wednesday, before the executive’s veto.
Before the council took action last month, Somers and the county’s other half-dozen independently elected officials signed a letter urging them against the move. They said the council was overstepping its legislative authority under the county charter.
In all, the restriction affects up to 88 management-exempt positions out of the approximately 1,500 total jobs supported by the county operating budget. While few in number, those jobs tend to be among the highest paid.
Some deputy directors and judicial clerks were exempted.
The veto is the latest turn in a budget disagreement that’s spilling over from the fall, when Somers recommended a tax increase to support the 2018 budget. The executive’s budget would have cost an extra $11 or so more in property taxes this year on a house assessed at the countywide average of $377,600.
Council members wanted to keep the budget at a minimum. They even stopped short of taking the 1 percent property-tax increase that many cities and counties in Washington take as a matter of routine.
While holding the line on spending, the council agreed to add seven positions to the operating budget. The new jobs funded for part of 2018 include five sheriff’s deputies, a code-enforcement officer and a long-range land-use planner. To keep those positions in 2019 and beyond, the county will likely need to raise taxes or cut other positions.
Some of the money used to make this year’s operating budget pencil out is considered one-time funding because it might not be available next year.
With its frugal budget, the council was trying to steer clear of the sticker shock many homeowners in Snohomish County are bound to feel in mid-February, as property-tax statements start arriving in the mail and appearing online.
Those bills include an average increase of 16 percent countywide, with jumps of 20 percent or more in Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Brier.
Higher regional transit taxes kicked in a year ago for Everett and southwest Snohomish County. Now, a new state education levy is taking effect. In some cities, local factors are contributing to a heavier tax load.
That’s not the end of the story, though.
Education’s share of the tax bill is set to go down in many areas for 2019. That’s when a state-mandated cap on local school levies is supposed to take effect. That should limit increases to $150 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student, whichever is less. It’s part of the Legislature’s attempt to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling in the McCleary case by shifting some of the burden for funding education away from local districts and to the state.
The council can override a veto with four or more votes, a fact not lost on Somers.
“I recognize that the council can override the veto,” he wrote. “However, I’d ask that the council instead choose to work in partnership with me and the other separately elected officials to come up with more effective means of solving the budget challenges we face.”
Somers suggested working over the next 30 days to set up a “road map to get our budget on track.” What path the county takes remains to be seen.