County considers using reserves to save public safety jobs
Spokane County commissioners may dip into reserves to save jobs and offset some of the most painful cuts in their 2011 general fund budget.
Commissioners Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager called for preserving safety-related programs by reducing reserves from 10 percent of the $136.8 million general fund to perhaps 8 percent.
Bond markets prefer a 10 percent reserve, but Richard said the county’s cushion has been as low as 8 ½ percent in the past, “and the world didn’t come to an end.”
Commissioner Todd Mielke objected to “using one-time money for ongoing programs” because it would increase the potential $3.5 million shortfall anticipated for 2012.
If the economy doesn’t improve and drawing down reserves deepens the county’s hole, Richard wants to spread the burden among all departments in 2012. He said that would effectively force greater cuts on departments considered less vital to public safety.
At some point, Mielke said, less-essential programs may be cut so much they should be eliminated. The Boundary Review Board staff might be a candidate, he said, noting Clark County’s board now meets only as needed.
“I don’t disagree,” Richard said.
Mager said that $388,000 in grants to private economic-development agencies, such as Greater Spokane Inc., should be eliminated before county departments are closed.
Meanwhile Thursday, department heads began notifying employees of potential layoffs.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told the Deputy Sheriffs Association that eight deputies would be laid off and nine vacant positions would remain dark unless he gets more money from the general fund or grants.
Commissioners have agreed to restore 21 of the 67 jail positions that were eliminated this summer when the jail population plummeted, but those positions will go to laid-off corrections deputies.
Officials now believe the cuts were too deep, impairing officer and inmate safety.
Two law enforcement deputies may be able to transfer into vacant dispatch positions, but Knezovich held little hope for his most junior road deputy, Lamont “Pete” Petersen.
Petersen’s job has been in jeopardy for three years, and Knezovich told him Thursday, “Pete, I don’t think I can save you this year.”
Deputy Brian Hirzel, who fatally shot a Spokane Valley pastor in August, also may lose his job. He is in the middle of the tentative layoff list.
County Clerk Tom Fallquist told commissioners he would issue notices today. He faces the loss of eight positions – seven because of expiring grants.
The first to go will be a Superior Court clerk’s position considered vital to the county’s “early case resolution” program.
Despite spotty implementation, officials say the need for jail beds has been reduced by quickly diverting some offenders into programs designed to monitor and reform them.
Unlike most of Fallquist’s duties, though, providing a judicial reform clerk is not required by the state constitution.
“I will cut it,” he told commissioners.
However, the position is on a short supplemental funding list commissioners began preparing after tentatively agreeing to tap their rainy day fund.
Commissioners want more information from several department heads, including Public Defender John Rodgers, who stands to lose seven support workers – 26 percent of the total – and an attorney next year.
Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer, said Rodgers and other department heads are in trouble because of grants that have dried up as state and federal officials focus on their own budget crises.
The 2011 cuts are attributable mainly to an approximately 10 percent increase in medical insurance premiums, but are extra difficult because of much deeper cuts in the current budget.
Rodgers said his attorneys “took pay cuts to get us through this year,” and support staff must bear the brunt of 2011 cuts.
“I’m begging the union to give me a hand here,” he said. “If I can’t keep these support staff, I’m going to have to seriously look at cutting what’s coming through the door and I don’t know how I can do that.”
Knezovich was weighing similarly hard choices: Reduce already heavily depleted detective squads, cut patrol ranks or spread the cuts between specialty units and patrol deputies.
The sheriff said his administrative staff has already been cut, but he wants to convert a vacant undersheriff position into a captain to handle special programs and projects.
Other pending cuts include: one layoff and elimination of a vacant position in the auditor’s office, one layoff each in the purchasing and facilities departments, and loss of 1.4 attorney positions and a support position in the prosecutor’s office.