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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Think you can balance the county budget? Have at it

To go directly to the special budget spreadsheet, click here.

Later this week, Spokane County commissioners will take a $10.5 million whack out of the county’s general fund budget.

They’d need $146.8 million to keep everything the county did and offered at the end of next year as they were at the beginning of this year, they can only count on about $136.3 million. Law says they can’t budget bet on an improving economy and budget in the red.

For months, the commissioners and the department heads who report to them, as well as the folks who are elected separately to handle other county functions have wrestled over what and where to cut. When they settle on the final numbers – possibly Tuesday – some people will be sad, some mad, and some really mad. Nobody’s gonna be smiling.

With governments everywhere cutting budgets, the county’s $10.5 million problem may not seem like such a big deal. The state’s budget, after all, is projected to be about $2.6 billion out of whack for the final 18 months of the biennium. By comparison, $10.5 mill is a rounding error.

But there’s a basic fact about the county budget: About 80 percent of it goes to pay the people who do the county’s work. Things it’s required by law to do, like arrest, try, prosecute, defend and punish bad guys. Or figure out what a piece of property is worth, collect the taxes on it, put that money into safe investments and pay it out to different cities, towns and district who have some claim on it. Register vehicles and provide license plates or tabs, file documents that say who owns a piece of property, who is married and who is divorced. Some things the county does, like pave roads and operate the 911 system, have a special tax or fee that pays for all or most of it.

Reporters know that government budget stories generally cause eyes to glaze over. People who read them closely often insist they could do it better, given half a chance.

So we’re going to give you the chance to make cuts to the county’s payroll...

To do it, you’ll have to go a special Web page,  where you’ll find some handy graphics by Spokesman-Review online specialist Andrew Zahler, a link to a spreadsheet totaling every county job paid from the general fund, and the annual salary. We took out the names, because this is an exercise in budgeting, not personalities.

There’s about $89 million in salaries. Because we’re only listing wages, not benefits, and personnel costs are only about 80 of the budget, we’re challenging you to find $6.4 million in wage cuts. You can’t cut everyone’s salary by a certain percent: that would mean breaking labor contracts the county has with its unions. You can’t cut the most expensive people in each position or job category because they’re probably the most senior, and layoffs go by reverse seniority.

You can’t fire elected officials, because the law says the county must have them.
As you cut a position from the spreadsheet, the totals for each department and the overall budget will go down. When your budget gets to about $82.5 million, you’re good.

You may notice quickly that law enforcement is more than half the county’s budget. Cut deputies and the response to crimes reported in the county or Spokane Valley will grow. Cut drug investigators and expect more drug use and the crime that comes with it. Cut prosecutors and the people arrested may not go to court for months. Cut jailers and some of the people that need to be in jail will be let out.

Cut “bureaucrats,” you say? OK, but to get the needed cuts out of what’s left, you’ll need a cleaver, not a scalpel. Whack the auditor’s office and expect long waits to get license tabs, record the deed to the house you bought or any other document you need to file. Cut the assessor’s staff and the county falls behind on figuring out what property is worth and what taxes can be collected.

Cut waste, fraud and abuse? Sorry, but in a real government budget, that’s not a line item. Real budgeting is much harder, and this is an extremely simplified version of the salary piece of the budget puzzle.

Have at it, and good luck.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.