November 20, 2008 in City

Budget trouble forcing layoffs at county

Dozens could lose jobs; cuts will also affect criminal justice system
Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 

Spokane County leaders will lay off potentially dozens of employees because of expected shortfalls in the county’s budget.

County CEO Marshall Farnell has been meeting this week with the three county commissioners to discuss the shortfalls. Some $3 million must be cut to balance next year’s budget. Another $1 million is expected to come out of county reserves, he said.

Already, budget counters have trimmed $1.5 million through eliminating overtime, some small programs and five jobs. But department heads were given orders to come back today with $1.5 million in additional cuts.

The layoffs will be presented to commissioners Monday. They’ll also meet with Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who will explain how the cuts will affect his department and operation of the jail.

“Things are just not getting better in the world,” Farnell said. “Even if the sales tax revenues pick up, it’s not going to bail us out.”

The county’s shrinking budget, expected to come in around $146 million for 2009, reflects depressed revenues from sales taxes and from interest payments to the county that haven’t met projections. The budget will still include a 10 percent reserve fund, Farnell said.

The planned cuts will come months after the commission voted to give almost all county employees a 3.5 percent pay increase. Deputy prosecutors and public defenders received increases almost 10 times that large after a study showed that county salaries were lagging behind those in other counties, Farnell said.

The county’s recent purchase of an auto racing track in Airway Heights should have no effect on the budget woes, Farnell said. The county’s annual bill to pay off that $4.5 million debt is about $380,000 a year, which should be covered by revenue returned to the county by the track’s operator.

Among other cost-cutting ideas, officials are considering having county employees work half or 75 percent of the work week but retain 100 percent of their benefits. Such an agreement would have to be negotiated with employee unions, and officials were unclear whether such a move would be employees’ decision or mandated.

In any case, the savings would be minimal in relation to the county’s budget woes because about 70 percent of the county’s budget is spent on its criminal justice system, Farnell said.

To that end, the county has asked Knezovich to cut about $600,000 from his operating budget and $650,000 from the jail budget, which went over budget in 2008 by almost $1 million because of overtime and unexpected inmate medical costs.

“The sheriff has got to cut like everyone else,” Farnell said.

One program, designed to head off future criminal justice costs, hasn’t been funded yet. The pretrial services initiative would divert people who’ve been arrested to life-skills programs, potentially preventing them from committing additional crimes. Other plans call for building a new courthouse in the jail to reduce transport costs.

“I don’t know how you do those things that make sense, that save money in the future,” Farnell said. “I don’t know how you do it.”

The city, county and Spokane Valley would share in the pretrial program’s $1.1 million cost. The decision to drop it or go forward probably won’t be made until January, Commissioner Mark Richard said.

“The key is we can spend money to save money,” he said.

The commission spent much of Wednesday reviewing $1.57 million in funding requests from community organizations, including Greater Spokane Inc., which wants $250,000, and the Armed Forces and Aerospace Museum, which wants $50,000.

“A number of years ago, the city didn’t have any money and the county had a fund balance. We were like kings, and we gave money out,” Farnell said. “We just don’t have the ability to do that anymore.”

Decisions on the funding requests were delayed until commissioners hear from department leaders on their plans for budget cuts and layoffs.

“I don’t think you feel their pain,” Farnell told commissioners, referring to county workers.

“Let us tell you what the impacts are. Wait until you have the big picture.”

Contact Thomas Clouse at (509) 459-5495 or tomc@spokesman.com.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus