EVERETT — Snohomish County’s upcoming budget season is shaping up to be “one of the most challenging in recent memory” as sales tax and other government revenues continue to tumble amid the economic downturn fueled by the COVID-19 crisis, county Executive Dave Somers said Tuesday.
The county might have to slash the roughly $250 million general fund by 10% in preparation for next year, Somers said during a media briefing hosted by the Snohomish Health District. That level of cuts, if applied equally across the board, would result in about 300 county employees losing their jobs, he said.
“And we’re going to do everything in our power to avoid layoffs, but we’re going to need everybody’s help, particularly from my fellow elected leaders,” Somers said.
The county has reduced this year’s budget by more than $25 million with a variety of cost-saving measures, from delaying projects to instituting staff furloughs. A hiring freeze has put a hold on many vacant positions, although some exceptions have been made to fill jobs that are considered essential. Several studies, including one that was supposed to recommend reforms for the county’s law and justice system, were also nixed.
Exactly where the county will feel next year’s financial squeeze will become more clear this fall, when the county council hears presentations from departments and hashes out the details of a 2021 spending plan. Somers is to unveil his budget proposal to the county’s legislative branch in late September, and the council must pass a final version by Nov. 30.
No branch of county government will be immune from cuts, Somers emphasized on Tuesday.
“Snohomish County has been very frugal over the last 15 years, and we find ourselves with no really good options,” he said. “I know some will claim they are being targeted for reductions. In fact, I hear from every other elected official — whether it’s the assessor, the auditor, the sheriff, the prosecuting attorney — they all feel like they don’t have the resources they need.”
Discussions about cuts to this year’s county budget drew an unusual amount of attention in June, when activists who called for reductions to Sheriff’s Office spending clashed with ardent supporters of law enforcement during more than six hours of public testimony.
A group of public defenders — in step with a nationwide movement to “defund the police” and put more money into programs that promote community well-being — called on the council to redistribute half of the Sheriff’s Office budget to housing, counseling and other social services.
Sheriff Adam Fortney urged residents in a post to his Facebook page to contact their council representative and let them know that “less police on the streets is not the solution to this budget deficit!”
In early June, the council was considering across-the-board cuts of 4.25% to the 2020 budget.
After the testimony, the council lessened the reduction to 3.5% in a bid to avoid layoffs countywide, including at the Sheriff’s Office.
The law enforcement agency accounts for more than 40% of the county’s general fund.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the Snohomish County Council for their hard work, patience, and desire to come to a meaningful resolution for our 2020 budget,” Fortney said in a subsequent Facebook post. “While EVERYONE will still be feeling the budget crunch due to COVID, this compromise will keep deputies on the street!”
The county is one of many local governments grappling with the pandemic-induced recession, which could intensify if cold weather brings another wave of COVID-19 cases and another economic shutdown.
Questions loom, too, about the future of aerospace production — a linchpin for local economic development because of Boeing’s presence at Paine Field in Everett.
The Chicago-based airplane maker, which now produces the twin-aisle 787 in Everett and in South Carolina, said last month that it would evaluate whether to consolidate production of the model in one location.
A county task force reconvened last week in hopes of convincing the company to keep 787 assembly in Everett.
While the county relies heavily on sales tax, it also leans on other revenue streams that have dwindled as the pandemic has progressed. Fees collected through District Court and Superior Court are down because the public health crisis has hamstrung the local justice system’s ability to process and resolve cases. The county also earns money by charging other jurisdictions for holding inmates at the jail; those funds have declined, too, because social distancing measures have reduced the facility’s population.
“Since the county never fully recovered from the Great Recession in 2008, we really no longer have fat,” Somers said. “We are an extremely lean operation, and we must have every single department and office do their part.”