Staffers seek what cuts took

  • By Jeff Switzer and Scott North / Herald Writers
  • Sunday, September 18, 2005 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

Millions of dollars in cuts made last year in Snohomish County’s “tough medicine” budget appear to be taking their toll.

Tales of burnout, injuries and fear of failure to meet legal requirements are outlined in volumes of budget requests from county department heads for 2006.

To reverse those challenges, officials are asking for better technology, more dog catchers, more prosecutors, jail workers, accident investigators and sheriff’s deputies. Some are new workers; others are back-filling cuts from previous years.

In all, county departments say they need $204.2 million in taxes in 2006 to pay for salaries and programs, according to documents obtained by The Herald.

Trouble is, that’s $20 million more than the county has to spend.

County Executive Aaron Reardon on Sept. 30 plans to announce how he thinks the county should spend an estimated $183.1 million expected next year in taxpayer money.

“There are those in government who think (taxes are) their personal money, but it’s not their money,” Reardon said. “When they ask for more than we have, it’s my job to let them know why they can’t have it.”

Just a year ago, the county slashed $13.4 million in jobs and programs to stop the red ink from flowing, Reardon said.

“We operate in an environment where taxpayers make decisions on how much money government is going to have, and we have to provide the services,” Reardon said.

Reardon said department heads must compete for the limited tax dollars available to the county in 2006.

Those needs are spelled out in 782 pages of department requests for the 2006 budget, which show services needed by managers and employees on the front lines.

Reardon said he scrutinized each of the spending proposals. The cases being made for some additional workers appeared “exaggerated or embellished,” he said.

“There is a bit of ‘the sky falling’ in those proposals,” Reardon said. “That was there last year as well. It didn’t happen last year, it’s not going to happen next year.”

Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis was among those who didn’t convince Reardon. She sought a 14 percent increase in spending. The money would pay for 16 additional employees, a third of whom would have restored prosecutors and support staff eliminated in previous budget cuts.

“I try not to overstate things,” Ellis said. “I am alarmed. We need people in the criminal division. We need attorneys. We need support staff. We can’t do the job that the community expects if we don’t have support in the budget.”

Reardon’s budget will not recommend adding more prosecutors, Ellis said. Two victim-advocate positions have been offered, but part of the money for their salaries would be bled from other places within the prosecutor’s office budget, she said.

Her staff pointed out that in 1999 there were 43 deputy prosecutors handling 4,700 felony cases. Last year, 40 deputy prosecutors shouldered 6,700 felony cases.

Ellis said she now plans to take her case to the County Council.

2006 is considered a tight budget year. Though revenues are $9.4 million higher than in 2005, new unions contracts for county employees will cost millions of dollars in salaries and medical benefits.

The tighter the budget, the more departments must compete, Reardon said.

Some, including the finance department, reported that having too few workers was causing burnout that could lead to errors. Reardon disagreed.

“We’re not burning out staff and not burning out people,” Reardon said.

He said he is working to change the culture of county spending while seeking efficiencies. Most of the proposals are heartfelt, Reardon said.

“We have county employees who want to do a good job for the citizens we represent,” he said.

Corrections director Steve Thompson asked for a 16 percent increase in funding, up to $37.5 million.

The main jail needs about 16 additional employees next year, including eight guards, according to officials. The county added 69 corrections workers last year for the new jail.

Labor contracts and medical costs are prime drivers of his department’s cost increase, Thompson said. The jail once was the county’s biggest overtime drain. Under Thompson, overtime spending at the corrections department now trails the sheriff’s office and public works department.

Sheriff Rick Bart sought a 16 percent increase over 2005 spending. The request was in sharp contrast to last year, when Bart responded to Reardon’s calls for belt-tightening by demanding money to hire 97 more deputies at an estimated $17.1 million.

This year “we pared our list down to what we felt was critical staff to reasonably do our job,” said Kevin Prentiss, chief of operations at the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s proposed budget would add money to improve accident investigations, which contribute to the department’s growing overtime spending.

A concerted pitch also was made to maximize the department’s use of technology to save labor and fight crime. One proposal would allow deputies to issue tickets using small computers, allowing data to be captured more efficiently. The department also suggested spending to enhance its use of genetic evidence and to make better use of fingerprints.

There is a backlog of 400 cases where fingerprints were recovered, but are still waiting processing by the sheriff’s office.

“It is likely that examination of those 400 cases would identify several suspects and facilitate their arrest and prosecution,” the department’s budget writers told Reardon. “There is a concern of due diligence liability for the county should one of those unidentified suspects victimize another citizen while we had evidence in our possession that could have removed them from the street.”

Prentiss said the sheriff’s office recognizes it will have to seek state and federal grants to pay for programs it considers critical. Still, the budget outlook isn’t entirely bleak.

“While there are some things we would have liked to see included in the (executive’s budget), we are not terribly disappointed,” Prentiss said.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or

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