December 6, 2012 in City

County budget raises taxes, CEO pay

Commissioners also planning to cut services
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County commissioners are planning to cut services and raise property taxes for 2013 at the same time they are handing their top administrator a $33,800-a-year pay increase.

CEO Marshall Farnell received the 26 percent salary increase last July, and that is expected to continue in next year’s budget. His pay has gone from $127,300 a year at the start of 2012 to $161,100 annually.

Commissioners said Farnell was underpaid compared with other administrators and had not been given a salary increase in past years.

The county’s $335 million budget, including Farnell’s salary, is slated for approval on Monday.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said recently that Farnell’s pay hike follows a salary study three years ago that showed Farnell trailing officials with comparable jobs.

Mayor David Condon and Fire Chief Bobby Williams are expected to make $169,000 each in 2013.

The city of Spokane also recently announced that it was raising the salary of its chief financial officer to $143,000 and its budget director to $128,000. But the city’s financial staff got added job responsibility as part of the new salaries.

Both the city and county have been facing sluggish revenue growth and staff cuts since the recession four years ago.

In 2013, county services are expected to be cut by an average of 1.5 percent, which will lead to the elimination of a half-dozen or more sheriff’s deputy positions and jobs in other county departments.

Even so, property owners will see the county portion of their property tax bills go up by an average of 1 percent, based on the proposal currently before the commissioners.

State law allows commissioners to increase property taxes up to 1 percent a year without voter approval. Commissioners have not taken a 1 percent increase since 2009, they said this week.

The cost of the higher property tax will be less than $3 on a $200,000 home, officials said.

“Taking it this year is a matter of us catching up,” Commissioner Al French said.

Commissioner Mark Richard called it a “fiscally sound budget.”

Property owners in unincorporated areas are expected to see an additional property tax increase to pay for road maintenance and improvements – as much as $20 to $30 on a $150,000 home.

During a budget hearing Monday, Farnell said departments were asked to trim 1.5 percent from their budgets, which will result in fewer county positions.

Part of the savings will help make up for higher medical and jail costs, he said. Costs for covering retired sheriff’s deputies will increase by $300,000.

The 1 percent property tax increase is worth about $462,000 to the $153 million general fund. The general fund was $149 million in 2012. The 2013 plan calls for increasing the year-end cash balance to $12 million.

But a big wild card remains in the 2013 budget plan.

Sheriff’s deputies and the county are going to binding arbitration on a contract dispute.

An arbitrator will hear arguments from both sides and look at pay at comparable agencies in the state. The arbitrator will then decide how much the county will have to pay deputies under a new contract.

French declined to talk about specifics in negotiations, but he said commissioners were attempting to hold deputy pay increases to a minimum.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich warned commissioners that budget cuts are eating into his department’s ability to protect public safety.

He said he has lost 32 positions in the past three years.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to address this issue,” he said.

Last spring, Knezovich asked commissioners to seek voter approval for a sales tax increase of two-tenths of a percent, which is allowed under state law for criminal justice and law enforcement.

Commissioners balked at the request.

“We continue to try to do more with less,” Knezovich said. “But the fact is we are doing less.”

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