EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers rolled out his proposed 2023 budget Tuesday.
It’s a spending plan that seeks to capitalize on a large pile of federal funds to sustain efforts to create affordable housing, reduce homelessness, expand access to child care and increase behavioral health services.
“I believe we have an historic opportunity in 2023 to make progress on the challenges we face,” Somers said in his annual budget address to county elected officials and staff.
“We received significant recovery resources from the federal government, and we are strategically deploying these one-time dollars to ensure we are making lasting change and bolstering our ongoing commitments,” he said.
It was the first time in three years that he had delivered the speech in person.
The proposal sketches out how Somers wants to spend $315.9 million through the general fund — the county’s primary operating account — plus another $85 million in cash from the American Rescue Plan Act, also known as ARPA. Another $80 million is left untouched in the ending balance.
Somers presented the budget to County Council Chair Megan Dunn on Tuesday. The council will begin public hearings on funding for individual departments next week, she said. Action could be taken by mid-November.
A focal point for Somers this year, like last, is public safety.
And like a year ago, he’s pushing to continue funding body cameras for sheriff’s deputies, calling them “one of the best ways to ensure there is a record, albeit imperfect, of encounters between law enforcement and members of the public.”
He’s proposing opening a new sheriff’s office precinct near Paine Field airport “to ensure our deputies have appropriate facilities for covering the busiest beat in Snohomish County.”
And he included money to cover a new multi-year contract with sheriff’s deputies that will boost salaries by at least 19.5% over the life of the agreement.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell applauded the inclusion of money to sustain an initiative he launched to gather data from across Snohomish County’s criminal justice system. When finished, it should shed more light on how certain groups, particularly people of color, are disproportionately affected.
“I am grateful,” he said. “It’ll make a big difference for the people of the county.”
But Cornell said he was disappointed Somers did not fund a request for four more deputy prosecuting attorneys to deal with complex cases, such as murders, persistent offenders and a rise in crime involving firearms.
The prosecutor called the request critical for dealing with emboldened criminals and threats to public safety posed by the flood of fentanyl in the community that Somers referenced in his speech.
“The tributaries of the fentanyl river are violent crime, gun crime, domestic violence and low-level property crimes,” Cornell said. “If you want to address the fentanyl crisis, you have to address the tributaries.”
Somers’ budget earmarks federal funds for two positions for the next two years. Because those dollars are temporary, Cornell said it will hard to recruit and retain someone for a temporary post.
County Council member Nate Nehring echoed Cornell’s sentiment, saying he would have liked to see the prosecutor’s request funded in Somers budget.
Nehring also said he appreciated the budget’s transparency and is excited to see the level of funds allocated to public safety and the expansion of broadband in the plan.
Many initiatives Somers touched on Tuesday rely on the federal aid. Of the total nearly $29 million would go to increase and preserve housing units and expand behavioral health services in the county.
Of the sum, nearly $14 million would be used to add shelter options through the acquisition of motels, hotels, congregate facilities, houses, and multi-family housing properties. The county recently agreed to buy motels in Everett and Edmonds for conversion into housing with access to social services on site.
“While the county can’t solve the problems in the housing market alone, we do have an important role to play,” Somers said. “For every unit of housing we create, it means one less person who risks losing their home and living on the street.”
At least $8 million is earmarked for behavioral health and substance use treatment efforts, an estimated $2.5 million to expand public health services across the county, and roughly $3 million for flood control and septic affordability projects that will keep residents in their homes while protecting the environment.
Somers proposes $22 million in ARPA money go into programs supporting youth, families and seniors. Of that total, $12 million would be used to expand access to child care by supporting efforts to recruit and retain workers, and to construct and renovate child care facilities.
“It has become even more obvious since the pandemic that a major barrier to some joining or returning to work is the lack of adequate child care,” Somers said. “The effects of child care deserts across our county impact all of us, but they have an even more acute impact on women.”
Elections are also getting attention in Somers’ proposed budget.
In a move he said will improve election security, he’s called for consolidating ballot-counting and election-related operations in the county administration building. Right now, the county leases warehouse space to conduct tallying of ballots.
The project would require extensive renovation on one floor of the building. It has a roughly $5.5 million cost of which $2 million has been secured already by the county auditor’s office. If it makes it into the final budget, the work could be done by the 2024 presidential election, Auditor Garth Fell said.
And Somers wants to kick start discussion on development of a state-of-the-art mountain biking facility.
“We have heard the mountain biking community loud and clear, and we want to keep them riding in Snohomish County,” he said. “This will be a multi-year project, since we have to identify a location and then it must be built, but we are committed to filling this need.”