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Spokane County budget woes keep coming

Agencies, departments report near-critical staffing conditions

Spokane County commissioners seem to have joined the Crisis of the Week Club.

Try as the commissioners may to unsubscribe, the problems keep coming.

They’re often related to this year’s $12 million, 12.5 percent cut in general-fund spending.

Since Assessor Ralph Baker declared in January that he couldn’t do his job because a nearly $350,000 budget cut cost him six employees, every week seems to bring a new financial dilemma.

As often happens, last week’s installment included a bonus that cut like an amazing Ginsu knife.

First, commissioners heard a plea Tuesday from the fee-supported Department of Building and Planning, which has been in a financial free-fall for a couple of years. Department officials sought a possible $200,000 lifeline.

Then commissioners got the really bad news, which was a sequel from a crisis two weeks ago – the one in which the Sheriff’s Office announced the layoff of 57 corrections deputies and followed up with 10 more, for an estimated savings of more than $4 million a year.

Building and Planning officials had barely completed their pitch when Human Resources Director Cathy Malzahn said, in effect, “But wait! There’s more.”

With all the layoffs, including three last week in Building and Planning, the county’s self-insurance fund for state unemployment compensation is in trouble.

What was a $345,407 expense last year is expected to cost $1.7 million this year. The county is responsible for the first 26 weeks of unemployment benefits for each laid-off employee, and 71 of the county’s 1,987 employees have gotten pink slips so far this year.

Malzahn said the county unemployment fund was healthy last year, when departments were billed $9 a month for each employee’s insurance.

But expenditures in the first three months of this year were approaching last year’s total, prompting Malzahn to raise the monthly charge to $12 per employee.

Then Malzahn learned of the Sheriff’s Office layoffs. She projected a revenue shortage of about $900,000 in the unemployment fund and said a new monthly charge of $55 would be “really cutting it close.”

Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell plans to study whether self-insurance is still cheaper than paying premiums to the state unemployment program.

Commissioners voted Tuesday to stanch the bleeding by drawing down unemployment fund reserves by $294,000, appropriating $350,000 for general-fund departments and requiring departments with nontax income – such as the utilities and road departments – to pay their $264,000 share of the shortfall.

That makes the Building and Planning Department’s situation worse because two of its four divisions rely entirely on fees from planning services and building permits. Pam Knutsen, the department’s administrative services manager, told commissioners she thought no other department has been hit as hard as Building and Planning. She said the department started 2008 with 59 employees and is down to 31.

“The remaining 31 people are in fear, and we need some stability,” Knutsen said.

Accompanied by Planning Director John Pederson and Building Director Randy Vissia, Knutsen said department leaders believe staffing has reached its minimum level for keeping the door open.

In fact, the door is closed on Fridays when everyone in the department takes a weekly 5 1/2-hour furlough that saved eight jobs when it took effect in May 2009.

Knutsen, Pederson and Vissia asked commissioners for an open-ended commitment to pump up the department’s fund balance as much as necessary at the end of the year to match last year’s ending balance of $974,128.

Knutsen believes that would require a $200,000 infusion.

“Don’t let us lose sight of this,” commission Chairman Mark Richard said. “Come back to us in a week or two.”

By a similar invitation, this week’s crisis will come from the Juvenile Court Services Department. Officials there gave a preliminary report two weeks ago and were asked to return with a detailed proposal.

Department Director Bonnie Bush told commissioners the department has been “crushed” by cuts in state funding as well as money it gets from the county general fund.

Nearly $1.5 million in state and county cuts since January 2009 have cost the department the equivalent of 14.5 positions. The county cuts account for $824,000 and 10 positions.

Only the most violent offenders are locked up, so the loss of five corrections officers and a detention supervisor in the past year and a half have impaired safety, Bush and Juvenile Court Judge Neal Rielly told commissioners on May 18.

Bush said lack of staff for transportation makes it difficult to use the Martin Hall regional juvenile detention center in Medical Lake, where the county has a contract for five beds.

Similarly, she said, it was recently necessary for the first time in at least 30 years to call in a team from the adult jail to persuade a belligerent boy to leave his cell. Bush said she didn’t have enough workers on duty to watch other offenders and safely deal with the boy.

Bush will be in Chelan, Wash., on Tuesday to discuss potentially large new state cuts, but her staff will ask county commissioners to restore three corrections officers and an electronic-monitoring probation officer at a cost of $253,650.

Meanwhile, the animal-control program and the medical examiner’s office need new quarters, the law library can’t pay its bills and more big chunks of decorative metal threaten to fall off the courthouse roof.

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