Snohomish Health District officials are warning that they may have to lay off 35 employees by the end of the year.
That could be just the first round of cuts at the public health agency, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer.
More could be coming next year, he said, when budget cuts could hit $4.4 million.
No details on proposed program or employee cuts were available Friday. Goldbaum said they will be announced at the board of health’s regular meeting Aug. 12.
A hiring freeze was put into effect about three months ago, he said.
However, the agency needs to find ways to trim about a half-million dollars from its budget yet this year, said Rick Mockler, deputy administrator.
He said he hoped the savings could come from a combination of the hiring freeze and layoffs.
Health district officials blame the cuts on spending down their reserves, or rainy-day funds, as directed by board members in 2004.
At the time, board members told the health agency that it would be given more money when the reserves were spent. The health district’s 15- member board is made up of elected city officials from throughout Snohomish County and members of the Snohomish County Council.
So the agency has slowly eroded its stash of extra cash. For example, it ended 2005 with $3.5 million in undesignated funds. That number dropped to $493,721 last year. And, according to health district budget figures, it is expected to go into the red this year by nearly $300,000.
Part of the 2008 budget approved last November included warnings from Goldbaum about the agency’s finances.
In his statement, Goldbaum predicted the agency would spend its fund balance this year and would have to substantially reduce expenses in 2009. That would probably mean cutting programs, the statement said.
The economy has also played a role in the budget woes, Mockler said, and the economic climate has changed rapidly since the early part of this year.
As one example of the role the economy has played in the budget, permit fees for on-site sewer systems could drop between $250,000 and $500,000 this year, he said.
Health officials huddled with county officials several months ago to talk about the agency’s growing budget crisis.
“We very much respect the mission of the health district,” Christopher Schwarzen, a spokesman for County Executive Aaron Reardon, said Friday.
“We also understand that they’ve been instructed by the (health district board members) to spend down their reserves over the last four years.”
However, the county is facing its own budget problems, he said.
The county could be facing a shortfall of up to $9 million that would have to be made up in the 2009 budget, he said.
The health agency received about $3 million this year from the county and an equal amount of money from the state, Goldbaum said. “That mix hasn’t changed in many years,” he said.
Out of its $22 million budget this year, only about $6 million is truly discretionary, meaning the agency and its board can decide how to spend the money, he said.
The rest are funds designated for specific programs, he said.
Over the years, the number of jobs at the public health agency has increased from 205 in 2004 to 237 this year.
However, because many of those positions are part-time jobs, the actual number of people working for the agency is 262, officials said.
Part of the increase has come as the agency has gotten money to add specific programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program or planning for health emergencies, such as a worldwide flu outbreak, Goldbaum said.
Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.