October 28, 2009 in City

Sheriff, prosecutor beg budget relief

Reserve-fund requests denied as layoffs loom
By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Knezovich
(Full-size photo)

Spokane County’s top law enforcement officials made an impassioned plea Tuesday to spare their budgets from spending cuts next year, suggesting commissioners tap the “rainy-day” fund to help prop up public safety services during tough economic times.

County commissioners said no and suggested county staff and residents prepare for cuts.

In a room packed with sheriff’s deputies, detectives and deputy prosecutors, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Prosecutor Steve Tucker listed reductions they’d be forced to make in law enforcement, jail operations and criminal prosecutions if their departments were to absorb a proportional share of the county’s expected budget shortfall. The county expects revenue to fall 11 percent in 2010. Most departments are under orders to find that amount in savings or cuts.

“The cuts demanded are more severe than we can handle,” Knezovich said.

His department would have to cut about $3.1 million. Unless he gets significant wage concessions from labor unions, such as those representing deputies and jailers, he’s looking at reducing some 50 positions. Some will be combined and others will be in programs that are dropped, but he’d have to lay off 34 people, he said. The county would also close some buildings at the Geiger Corrections Center and suspend work release, home monitoring and a pilot program for community corrections. It’ll be down to 934 jail beds total; the average daily population now is 1,028 prisoners.

Crime and domestic violence usually rise during bad economic times, creating more need for law enforcement, not less, he said.

Tucker said the number of deputy prosecutors hasn’t changed for seven years, despite the increase in caseloads. To cover his department’s share of the budget shortfall, about $1 million, he’d have to lay off nine deputy prosecutors.

“It completely guts the District Court unit,” Tucker said. That’s the unit that handles misdemeanor criminal offenses.

Tucker urged commissioners to use some of the county’s budget reserve, sometimes called the rainy-day fund, to help stave off cuts. Commissioners have said they are reluctant to draw reserves down below about 8 percent of the budget, because it would lower the county’s bond rating.

Taxpayers probably don’t care about the county’s bond rating, Tucker argued. “This is an emergency. This is a rainy day.”

But they will care about the bond rating if the county has to spend more to borrow money for big projects, which will cost them more in the long run, Commissioner Mark Richard said: “This is not a problem we can solve with a one-time use out of the reserve funds.”

Using the reserve this year, without making major changes, only puts off the problem until next year, Board Chairman Todd Mielke said. Tax revenues could continue to drop and federal and state sources of money also likely will shrink, he said.

“It’s not really about if we make these cuts, it’s about how we make these cuts,” Mielke said. “The citizens are going to see a reduction in services we provide.”

The county will finalize its budget in December and is waiting to see what, if any, concessions its unions might agree to before making final cuts. It’s also considering furloughs and reducing the number of hours some county offices are open, Mielke said.


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