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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County draws more than $2 million from reserves, leave positions vacant to balance budget

The Spokane County Courthouse pictured in 2019.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners balanced the county’s $675 million budget Monday by pulling about $2.6 million from reserves and delaying the hiring of sheriff deputies, trainees and others planned for next year.

After an economically turbulent year, Spokane County was facing an $11.6 million budget shortfall going into 2021, but gradually reduced the deficit over the past few months by waiting to fill 10 positions at the Spokane County Sheriff’s office, planning to not hire some seasonal workers for the parks department and waiting to hire in several other departments including facilities and the assessor’s and the auditor’s offices next year. The county’s anticipated 2021 deficit also dropped after sales tax revenues recovered late in 2020 and the county updated its projections in anticipation of sales tax revenues coming in at close to normal levels next year.

Additionally, county commissioners shifted about $6.1 million from the road fund to pay for both roads and capital projects.

Commissioners unanimously approved the budget Monday.

Gary Petrovich, the county’s chief financial officer, said he did not yet have a complete count on how many positions would be left vacant in 2021, saying both revenues and expenses are based on estimates that could fluctuate due to the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county had little choice in turning to reserves and the road fund to handle the budget deficit due to increasing costs and unanticipated expenses, including revenue losses from the pandemic and some new requirements from the state.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things, you might call it a perfect storm,” French said.

All three commissioners said they hoped to avoid drawing from reserves next year.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he is also hopeful the economic outlook will improve and sales tax will recover, which could possibly mean the county may not need the entire $2.6 million from reserves to balance the 2021 budget.

“We’ve seen our sales tax numbers have continued to stay strong with these latest government shutdown orders,” he said. “I hope that the consumer purchasing remains strong, we’ll have to wait and see and we won’t know that impact until it happens.”

The $2.6 million drawn from reserves covered part of the shortfall and preserved part of a diversion program run by the Department of Pre-Trial Services. Pretrial Services was slated to lose more than half of its employees, six positions that were funded by a grant, at the end of 2020. Commissioners voted to fund 1.5 of the positions that would have been eliminated when the grant expired with about $112,500 of reserves.

Pretrial Services conducts assessments to see which people arrested qualify for a public defense attorney and provides information to judges to assist them when making decisions about whether to release a person or set a high bail. Over the last several years the department also has assisted with diversion programs which keep first time offenders out of the criminal justice system.

There will still be some cuts to services offered by that department due to the loss of employees, mostly to the city of Spokane Municipal Court which will no longer receive those services from the county, and possibly some to district court, which will still receive some services.

City of Spokane Municipal Court Administrator Howard Delaney said the city will appoint an attorney to every defendant until they can investigate the cost of hiring new people or contracting with an outside agency to conduct assessments and compile information on defendants. He said the change could result in more low-level offenders staying in jail longer until the city can come up with funds and a plan to replace the program.

In addition to pulling from reserves, Spokane County commissioners also voted to pull from the road fund to pay for both roads and maintenance of county buildings.

About $3.27 million of the $6.1 million in road shift funds will be used on road work and the remaining $2.83 million will be used on building maintenance and other capital projects.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said she prefers to avoid pulling from reserves or the road fund, but noted county departments are already very lean. She said she’s hopeful next year to avoid either.

“Reserves is for storing up for a rainy day,” she said. “With COVID, this is that crazy year where it was time.”

The 2021 budget is split up into several funds. The portion that funds most of the services with which the public interacts – law enforcement, courts, elections and the Planning Department – is the General Fund, which is about $202.7 million. Other portions, including the county’s sewer system and the fair, are funded through some county tax funds, as well as fees or tickets, grants and contracts with other local governments.

The biggest expense in the general fund is the Sheriff’s Office, which is about $47 million of the $202.7 general fund, followed by Detention Services, which runs the downtown jail and the Geiger Corrections Center, about $40 million.