December 8, 2010 in City

County budget to tap reserve

Commissioners decline to raise property taxes
By The Spokesman-Review

Next year’s Spokane County budget will dig deeper into county reserves, not taxpayers’ wallets.

County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday not to impose legally permitted 1 percent increases in property tax levies for the general fund or the road fund.

The spurned increases – $447,849 in the general fund and $168,665 in the road fund – will be “banked” for possible future use.

Commissioners voted 2-1, with Todd Mielke dissenting, to rescue several high-priority criminal justice programs by reducing reserves from 10 percent of the general fund to 8.8 percent.

Reserves will drop from $13.6 million to $12.1 million.

Next year’s general fund budget of $139.4 million is up 3.7 percent from this year’s.

Even though commissioners didn’t increase the property tax levy, new construction will boost tax receipts. The general fund also is supported by the sales tax and other income.

The largest beneficiary of Tuesday’s budget adjustments was the Sheriff’s Office, where nine vacant positions will be eliminated but a $726,724 allocation will allow eight deputies to keep their jobs.

Other special allocations included: $318,183 in the prosecutor’s office for two attorneys and three support workers, $135,000 in the county clerk’s office for three clerks, and $230,000 for four support workers in the public defender’s office.

Also: $57,454 to hire a juvenile probation officer, $35,000 to reduce District Court staff furloughs and about $6,000 for Department of Emergency Management equipment.

Mielke worried that use of “one-time money” for ongoing needs would compound budget problems in 2012, when he fears the county will face a $5 million shortfall.

Before the decision to draw about $1.5 million from reserves, the 2012 shortfall had been estimated between $2.5 million to $3.5 million.

“I’ve never hoped more that I’m wrong,” Mielke said.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager said the budget is still “very conservative,” and the county needs to bolster its crime-fighting programs as state support declines.

“I can’t think of a better use of our undedicated fund balance,” Chairman Mark Richard said.

Richard’s alliance with Democrat Mager instead of his fellow Republican, Mielke, afforded an unusual spectacle. Mager and Richard patiently negotiated details of departmental budget adjustments while Mielke sat silent.

Mager and Richard easily agreed on the need for another parole officer to oversee juveniles on electronic home monitoring.

Without intensive supervision by a probation officer, electronic monitoring “isn’t worth much more than the price of the bracelet,” Richard said.

Some of the old differences emerged when the commissioners voted unanimously not to increase property tax levies.

Richard said he couldn’t support a tax increase until county employees grant wage and benefit concessions.

Mager said she couldn’t support an increase as long as the county is giving economic-development grants to outside agencies or subsidizing a racetrack.

Richard and Mielke favor the grants and bought the Spokane County Raceway over Mager’s objections.

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