With Reardon’s budget due soon, a look at 7 key areas to watch

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, September 28, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon is poised to deliver his plan for the 2012 county budget during a public speech on Friday.

Expect Reardon’s proposed operating budget to remain in the same $200 million range where it’s been for the past few years.

“We’re not anticipating any la

rge change in the economy,” finance director Roger Neumaier said this week.

After the executive’s presentation, the Snohomish County Council gets to rework the plan. The budget process typically wraps up in late November or early December.

Even if the amount of money involved stays the same, rising salary and health care costs could still force leaders to pare expenses.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers said he’ll be paying close attention to any cuts Reardon recommends, and how they might affect public services.

“I’m hearing from a lot of departments that any further cuts are going to result in real cuts to services,” Somers said.

Funding for non-mandatory but popular programs such as senior services, Master Gardeners and 4-H are all areas to watch, he said.

Somers and other elected leaders have signaled they oppose tax increases.

“It’s difficult to do that even when the economy’s strong,” he said. “The general public has made it clear that they feel taxed out.”

Here are some areas to watch in the 2012 county budget:

Revenues

Taxes and fees to support the county’s operating budget are expected to fall short for the third year in a row, this time by nearly $1.5 million. The biggest hit was from a one-time $1.2 million refund on sales tax King County overpaid to Snohomish County on equipment used for the Brightwater sewage treatment plant from 2006 to 2010.

Health care

The county’s annual medical insurance costs grew by nearly 10 percent during the past five years. The county now pays an average $12,428 per year per employee in health care costs. To control the increase, the county, like many private employers, is trying to encourage workers to take cost-saving steps. These steps include using walk-in clinics over emergency rooms when appropriate and avoiding unnecessary medical procedures. The county also hired a company to check that dependents insured under county plans are, in fact, entitled to coverage.

Roads

The county is an estimated $263 million or more short of paying for planned road improvements through 2025. That’s two-thirds of the total long-term roads budget.

County leaders have shied away from a politically unpopular $20 car-tab fee. Adjustments to lower property taxes after annexations also could sap the money available for roads.

“When we analyzed what would happen without these major tax increases it became clear that in the long term the problem was significantly greater than $263 million,” County Councilman Dave Gossett said in a press release. “More importantly, in the short term the road budget was potentially bankrupt in 2014.”

At the same time, state and federal agencies have been cutting back on grant dollars.

Staff from Reardon’s office have maintained that the current roads plan, written at a time of galloping growth, needs an update to reflect the economic slowdown.

“The facts have changed and we need to update the analysis, which was true for the economy in 2005 but is different in many regards from what is true today,” Neumaier said.

Salaries

A recent agreement with the largest county workers union awards a 1.35 percent raise starting April 1, 2012. That’s only about a third of inflation and starts later that it would in a normal contract. The same agreement gave rise to a $460 payment to each county worker that some county leaders called a signing bonus, but others said adjusts salaries for higher medical costs.

State budget cuts

Washington faces a $1.2 billion shortfall in the budget that runs through mid-2013. Gov. Chris Gregoire has called a special legislative session starting Nov. 28 to pare spending, a process that could choke off some funds for counties and other local governments. Since the special session starts around the time Snohomish County leaders hope to pass their budget, county leaders might have to make changes next year.

“There will probably be a lot of counties doing budget amendments,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties.

State pullbacks could affect several areas: capital projects, such as roads and water infrastructure; mental health programs; court functions; and public health.

Cuts to some areas, such as mental-health and drug-treatment programs, might increase costs for law enforcement later on.

“It’s the situation of pay now or pay later,” Johnson said.

Criminal justice

The sheriff’s office, jail, courts and other criminal-justice functions soak up nearly three-quarters of the county’s operating budget. Because many workers in these areas perform emergency or constitutionally mandated tasks, they’ve been largely spared layoff notices or unpaid time off work. Any big reductions, however, would have to touch these areas.

Old landfill

The county has for several years been making interest-only payments on the Cathcart Regional Landfill. County leaders are looking for ways to pay down outstanding debt of about $23.4 million.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Recent budgets

County Executive Aaron Reardon plans to present his 2012 budget at 10 a.m. Friday on the first floor conference room of the Robert J. Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.

Recent county operating budgets:
2011: $204,329,082
2010: $203,000,426
2009: $206,796,401
2008: $210,690,491

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