The Mission Building on the Snohomish County government campus is seen through a sculpture. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

The Mission Building on the Snohomish County government campus is seen through a sculpture. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Vacancies could affect key county functions, officials warn

With a COVID-induced hiring freeze and budget talks looming, departments say they have been strapped.

EVERETT — Leaders of Snohomish County departments have pleaded for the County Council’s permission to break a hiring freeze to fill posts they say are critical to keeping up day-to-day operations.

The council has granted some exceptions to the freeze, which was instituted earlier this year and later extended as tax revenue tumbled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, council members cleared the way for the recruitment of a law clerk, an office assistant and other staff members who will man counters and file paperwork on the downtown Everett county campus.

More positions remain empty, though — even as department heads warn that going without them could result in poor customer service for citizens and expose the county to liability.

“I appreciate the concerns about belt-tightening. But I think we’ve pretty much squeezed our guts out,” Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell told the council on Aug. 19, while requesting permission to hire a criminal law office assistant. “I am asking you to approve what is the bare minimum for us.”

The council granted Cornell’s request on Tuesday.

The discussions foreshadow the tough choices that await county leaders as the 2021 budget season approaches.

The county has slashed this year’s budget by more than $25 million with a variety of cost-saving measures, from delaying projects to instituting staff furloughs. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers has warned that the coronavirus and resulting economic slowdown could again warrant a 10% reduction to the county’s roughly $250 million general fund when officials devise a spending plan for next year.

“It’s our job as council to make those difficult decisions and be responsible in how we do that,” Council Chairman Nate Nehring said in an interview. “The reality of the situation is that we’re facing a pandemic and an economic shutdown. And we can only spend the dollars that we’re bringing in.”

Somers is to unveil his budget proposal to the county’s legislative branch on Sept. 29, and the council must pass a final version by Nov. 30.

On Tuesday, the council approved the hiring of two Sheriff’s Office law enforcement technicians — one for the Evidence Control Unit and one for the Records Unit, which has a half-dozen vacancies. But the Sheriff’s request for two more technicians in the Records Unit was tabled.

The Records Unit is dealing with a mounting backlog as staff struggle to process a flood of concealed pistol license applications that has inundated the agency amid the pandemic and nationwide civil unrest over police brutality.

“To be quite frank, the dam has broken for us. We have employees quitting left and right due to the extreme workload,” Norm Link, chief of the Sheriff’s Office Administrative Services Bureau, told the council at the Aug. 19 meeting while making a plea for more technicians. “We’re falling behind further and further by the day.”

The Sheriff’s Office typically receives about 300 concealed pistol license applications a month. But in June, the agency fielded 2,500, Link said. Other firearm-related requests that the agency is responsible for approving, such as purchases and transfers, reached an unprecedented high of 2,400 in June; the previous record, set in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, was about 1,200 or 1,300, Link told the council.

“We’ve held the line as long as we could, but the liability for the county for the work that’s performed by these positions is pretty extreme,” he said. “We can’t be missing deadlines and giving out guns to people who aren’t approved to have them.”

The council has also tabled a request to fill one of two open field officer positions on the county’s six-person animal control team.

With the vacancies, the Animal Services Division can’t do private kennel inspections or respond to calls about stray dogs unless an animal is considered dangerous, said County Auditor Garth Fell, who oversees the division. And when the team receives a call about a dangerous dog on the loose, an officer sometimes takes more than an hour to respond because of staffing constraints, Fell told the council on Tuesday.

“These delays put animals and people at risk,” Fell said.

Snohomish County Assessor Linda Hjelle got some good news this week when the council granted her request to hire an assessment technician. But the assessor, whose office of roughly 65 employees now has 10 empty positions, is still hoping to fill a few more posts.

Hjelle has told the council she needs more staff to correct longstanding problems that were underscored by a recent audit.

The Assessor’s Office failed to meet three deadlines in 2019 — lapses that could have resulted in financial penalties, according to the audit, prepared by Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting for the county.

The audit also found that the office had “antiquated information systems” and backlogs that could ultimately lead to a property owner receiving an outdated statement of tax value and paying more or less than their fair share.

The findings were no surprise to Hjelle. During the county’s last budget season, she welcomed the examination when council members said they would support two additional staffers to help address the backlogs if she agreed to the audit.

Due to the pandemic, those two positions never made it onto the payroll.

“The performance audit substantiated what we’ve been saying and what the needs are,” she said. “There are direct impacts to the county.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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