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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

County commissioners pass 2015 budget

Spokane County will avoid service cuts next year and raise property taxes by 1 percent.

But to prevent cuts in law enforcement in 2016, officials warned that they may need to ask the public for broader increases.

County commissioners unanimously passed the 2015 budget this week. Although it maintains funding levels for most services, departments are looking ahead to ballot measures and state actions that could have wide-reaching effects on the county’s coffers in future years.

The county’s general fund expenses will total $155 million in 2015, an increase of about $13 million from 2014’s total. But the majority of that increase is tied up in the county’s recent purchase from the city of Spokane of two solid waste transfer stations, which began operating under county control last month.

“That’s a one-time, $6.1 million cost,” said Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer. Salaries for additional county employees that were hired to help run the stations will be offset by fees collected there, Farnell said.

Commissioners voted to accept a 1 percent property tax increase as part of the budget. That’s the maximum they can raise taxes without a public vote.

The Spokane County Jail continues to be one of the major drains on the county’s bottom line. Detention costs in 2015 will be a $28 million expense for the county, which shares the costs of operating the jail with the city of Spokane and other cities that house inmates there. Farnell said the proportion of jail inmates who are felons continues to increase as alternative sentencing options multiply for offenders facing misdemeanor charges. While cities pay the cost of housing misdemeanor offenders, the county must pay the whole cost of incarcerating felons, Farnell said.

The county paid about $25 million for confinement costs last year.

Public safety will account for about 70 percent of the county’s general fund spending in 2015, including $35 million for the operation of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is once again pushing county commissioners to put a 0.1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot to make up for lost positions in his department, totaling 34 deputies since 2008.

“It is beyond imperative Spokane County begins to rebuild the staffing issues within the Sheriff’s Office,” Knezovich said in an email.

This year’s budget will allow the department to maintain its current staffing levels, but a regional drug and gang task force remains on the chopping block if $300,000 is not added to continue to fund those positions, Knezovich said. State and federal funds for the program have dried up, the sheriff told commissioners last month.

Knezovich has told commissioners he will use the political capital shown by his recent overwhelming win of a third term, to fight for the sales tax increase, which he said could add an additional $4.5 million to the Sheriff’s Office budget.

But commissioners are wary of making any decision on additional funding for the office, given the impending decision from an arbitrator about how much the county must pay unionized deputies in back pay. The county and deputies’ union have not agreed on a contract since 2012, and an independent arbitrator met with labor negotiators last month to reach a resolution.

The decision, expected to be handed down early next year, will be binding, giving county executives pause, Commissioner Al French said this week, especially as the Washington Legislature determines how it will pay for a mandate from the state Supreme Court to vastly increase education spending.

“The suspicion is that they will take from us,” French said. While the county maintains a reserve fund of about $14 million, coupling the arbitrator’s decision with expected cuts in state funding to pay for education has a chance of putting the county “under water,” French said.

Other departments likely will be seeking more public funding on the ballot next year. A 0.1 percent sales tax to fund improvements at the jail and juvenile detention facilities is set to expire at the end of next year, setting up another bond measure in 2015.

“We’ve been having budget cuts, I want to say, for the past seven years,” said Bonnie Bush, director of Juvenile Court Services. Funding levels from the county will remain steady next year, however, she said.

Some additional cash will flow into the county’s road department, which has several major capital projects planned for next year, said County Engineer Bob Brueggeman. Major enhancements planned for the spring are a repaving of Hawthorne Road between highways 2 and 395 near Whitworth University, and improvements to Market Street in Mead including sewers, sidewalks and bike paths.

“We’ll be doing design over the winter, but depending on the weather, the construction will be March through November,” Brueggeman said.

While the county will use fuel tax dollars to fund new road projects, existing roads are maintained through property tax receipts, Brueggeman said. The county’s road crew will operate on a $45 million budget, which is separate from the main county budget.

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