By Brian Sullivan
On Nov. 28, the Snohomish County Council passed its budget for 2018.
The adoption of the budget came after more than two months of intense analysis of the County Executive Dave Somer’s proposed budget. One of the first things we as a wouncil noticed was the inclusion of a 4 percent increase in property taxes. This increase would have used 3 percent of banked capacity in addition to the annual 1 percent increase allowed by state law.
No public hearings were needed for us to determine that we could not support this level of tax increase to Snohomish County taxpayers. Being mindful of recent tax increases such as Sound Transit 3, in addition to upcoming increases because of the State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, our task then became how to identify items proposed within the executive’s budget that could be removed without negatively affecting the county’s ability to function effectively, thereby negating the need to significantly increase property taxes.
To provide some context, the 2018 general fund budget is approximately 4.4 percent higher than the 2017 budget. This is because of the natural growth seen as a result of increases in expenditures in all categories, including salaries, wages and benefits, in addition to revenue growth from a growing economy. Including the 4 percent proposed increase in property taxes, the executive’s budget would have grown the general fund by roughly 5.9 percent from 2017.
As a council, we worked individually and with staff to identify areas of concern, and items that could be classified as “wants” instead of “needs.” It was our intent to make necessary changes to the proposed budget with as little impact as possible to existing personnel. Employees of Snohomish County are the most valuable asset we have, and providing the required services to the citizens of Snohomish County depends on maintaining staffing at levels to perform those services at the highest possible standards.
Ultimately, we were able to come up with a budget that not only avoided raising property taxes, but also limited personnel cuts to a few proposed or long-term vacant positions, while still enabling us to provide for the hiring of an additional five deputies and a code-enforcement officer to better address public-safety.
While no budget is perfect, the budget adopted for 2018 does not include any layoffs to existing personnel, plus it comes with notes and conditions that will create policies and require code changes to provide the council with the tools necessary to more effectively manage spending in future years. Already, I have begun the process of introducing motions and ordinances to address workforce planning, restrict hiring practices for management and exempt positions, and to eliminate merit pay increases for management and exempt employees.
Currently, the economy is strong, and revenue from sales tax is coming in higher than projected, as are excise taxes on real estate sales. However, we need to be mindful of the lessons learned in the Great Recession and know that just because things are rosy now, doesn’t mean they will stay rosy forever.
We can’t afford to restore staffing to 2008 levels if, at some point in the future, it means possibly laying off hundreds of people. We owe it to the citizens of Snohomish County, as well as to the employees and elected officials of Snohomish County, to be better than that.
Brian Sullivan represents District 2 on the Snohomish County Council. He serves as council chairman.