Editorial: County council should step back from hiring review

A new ordinance adds bureaucracy that will make timely hires difficult for department heads.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The Snohomish County Council’s intention to be good stewards of taxpayer funds is understandable — expected, even — but the council’s decision earlier this week to restrict the hiring process for county departments and add a layer of bureaucracy is unlikely to offer much in savings to the county, likely oversteps its responsibilities under the county charter and could create divisions between the council and the county’s other elected officials.

On Monday, over the objections of several elected department chiefs, the council unanimously passed an ordinance that restricts the ability of those officials to fill certain open management jobs within their departments and requires the council’s review and approval to advertise and hire for open positions.

The ordinance exempted judges’ law clerks and departments’ deputy directors, but affects about 88 of about 180 “exempt” management positions within the county’s workforce of about 1,500 full-time equivalents. These are typically salaried positions within the departments of sheriff, prosecuting attorney, auditor, assessor, treasurer, clerk and county executive.

County Executive Dave Somers notified council members Wednesday that he planned to veto the ordinance. Given the 5-0 vote by the council’s three Democrats and two Republicans, an override of the executive’s veto would seem likely, but Somers said he was asking council members to delay action on his veto for 30 days to allow for more discussion.

Council members should take advantage of that 30-day timeout to work with Somers and other department heads to reconsider the ordinance and seek other avenues toward addressing the county’s finances.

The council notably adopted a budget for this year that rejected Somers’ budget request for a 2 percent increase in the county’s share of property taxes, instead adopting a budget that increased only the county’s road levy by 1 percent. That’s a move no doubt appreciated by county taxpayers who are bracing for increases to their property taxes that reflect the Legislature’s “levy swap,” which increased the state’s property tax to provide ample funding for K-12 education, and the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 tax package.

While the county adopted a balanced budget, Somers believes that the county could face a budget gap of as much as $2 million this year, and perhaps a larger gap in 2019.

The added layer of review by the council for a limited number of hires in the county won’t produce significant savings, even if council members were to use the ordinance as a method of laying off county employees by attrition.

Instead, the ordinance would hamper the ability of elected department leaders to timely hire employees necessary for each department to deliver the services that county residents expect in return for their taxes.

Sheriff Ty Trenary says the ordinance effects about 15 employees within his department, which includes the county jail. Among those most likely to soon fall under the council’s review is a Search and Rescue helicopter pilot who is nearing retirement. Any significant delay in hiring a new pilot while the council reviews the need for the position risks a dangerous vacancy for the department’s response to emergencies.

Few other such positions represent a matter of life and safety, yet in all cases, each of the department’s elected officials are better informed and prepared than the county council to make judgments about the value and need for each position.

And those decisions are an important part of the work those officials were elected to do.

The ordinance, in removing responsibility from elected officials, could be seen as a showing a lack of confidence in each, one that isn’t borne out by a record of good fiscal management and budget practices by each of the department officials.

In passing the ordinance, some council members pointed to the need to be prepared for a possible economic downturn in coming months or years. That’s a legitimate concern. And if there are questions about specific positions within departments, the annual budget process offers the council the appropriate opportunity to discuss those issues.

But an additional layer of bureaucracy over hiring decisions only nibbles around the edges of the county’s finances and threatens a good working relationship among the council, the county executive and county departments.

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