December 6, 2009 in City

Think you could do better with budget? Go for it

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Later this week, Spokane County commissioners will take a $10.5 million whack out of the county’s general fund budget.

They’d need $146.8 million to maintain the status quo and can only count on about $136.3 million. Law says they can’t bet on an improving economy and budget in the red.

For months, the commissioners and the department heads who report to them, as well as the folks who are elected separately to handle other county functions, have wrestled over what and where to cut. When they settle on the final numbers – possibly Tuesday – some people will be sad, some mad, and some really mad. Nobody’s gonna be smiling.

With governments everywhere cutting budgets, the county’s $10.5 million problem may not seem like such a big deal. The state’s budget, after all, is projected to be about $2.6 billion out of whack for the final 18 months of the biennium. By comparison, $10.5 mil is a rounding error.

But there’s a basic fact about the county budget: About 80 percent of it goes to pay the people who do the county’s work – work it’s required by law to do, like arrest, try, prosecute, defend and punish bad guys. Or figure out what a piece of property is worth, collect the taxes on it, put that money into safe investments and pay it out to cities, towns and districts that have some claim on it. Register vehicles and provide license plates or tabs, file documents that say who owns a piece of property, who is married and who is divorced.

Some things the county does, like pave roads and operate the 911 system, have a special tax or fee that pays for all or most of the cost.

Reporters know that government budget stories generally cause eyes to glaze over. People who read them closely often insist they could build a better budget, given half a chance.

So we’re going to give you the chance to make cuts to the county’s payroll. Here you’ll find some handy graphics by Spokesman-Review online specialist Andrew Zahler, a link to a spreadsheet listing every county job paid from the general fund, and the annual salary. We took out the names – this is an exercise in budgeting, not personalities.

There’s about $89 million in salaries. Because we’re only listing wages, not benefits, and personnel costs are only about 80 percent of the budget, we’re challenging you to find $6.4 million in wage cuts. You can’t cut everyone’s salary by a certain percent: That would mean breaking contracts the county has with its unions. You can’t cut the most expensive people in each position or job category because they’re probably the most senior, and layoffs go by reverse seniority. You can’t fire elected officials, because the law says the county must have them.

As you cut a position from the spreadsheet, the totals for each department and the overall budget will go down. When your budget gets to about $82.5 million, you’re good.

You may notice quickly that law enforcement is more than half the county’s budget. Cut deputies and crimes reported in the county or Spokane Valley will grow. Cut drug investigators and expect more drug use and the crime that comes with it. Cut prosecutors and the people arrested may not go to court for months. Cut jailers and some of the people that need to be in jail will be let out.

Cut “bureaucrats,” you say? OK, but to get the needed cuts out of what’s left, you’ll need a cleaver, not a scalpel. Whack the auditor’s office and expect long waits to get license tabs, record the deed to the house you bought or any other document you need to file. Cut the assessor’s staff and the county falls behind on figuring out what property is worth and what taxes can be collected.

Cut waste, fraud and abuse, you say? Sorry, but in a real government budget, that’s not a line item. Real budgeting is much harder, and this is an extremely simplified version of the salary piece of the budget puzzle.

Have at it, and good luck.

Spin Control is a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden. It also appears with daily posts, reader comments and other features online at spokesman.com/ blogs/spincontrol.

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