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Spokane County reduces its 2021 budget deficit by around $3 million by not hiring as many new sheriff’s deputies, other employees

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 28, 2020

The Spokane County Courthouse and Public Safety Building pictured in 2019. The Spokane County Commissioners are now faced with an $8.4 million deficit and may pass a budget that includes several less sheriff's deputies and trainees were initially planned for 2021.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Courthouse and Public Safety Building pictured in 2019. The Spokane County Commissioners are now faced with an $8.4 million deficit and may pass a budget that includes several less sheriff's deputies and trainees were initially planned for 2021.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County has reduced the 2021 budget deficit it was facing from $11.6 million to around $8.4 million by trimming the number of deputies and other employees who will be hired next year.

Spokane County has a total budget of about $656 million with a general fund of about $200.8 million. The general fund supports many of the services counties provide, such as the sheriff’s office, courts, the jail, the parks department, the assessor and the auditor’s office.

The finances were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the county was facing an $11.6 million shortfall due to an anticipated reduction in taxes, revenue from some contracts and higher expenses.

Spokane County Chief Budget Officer Gary Petrovich said the county’s budget had come in slightly later than normal due to delays in tax revenue information caused by the pandemic and county staff adjusting to a new accounting software. He said the first preliminary budget was based on what departments said they needed for 2020, and he met with several departments and asked them to reduce their requests.

The Sheriff’s Office, Facilities Department, Assessor’s Office and Auditor’s Office reduced their requests by about $1.8 million. The largest portion of that was the Sheriff’s Office, which dropped it’s request from $48.4 million to about $47 million.

Chief Administrative Officer for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Todd Mielke said the office’s request was mainly reducing the number of officers and trainees the department planned to hire next year, and reducing the amount of overtime anticipated.

The Sheriff’s Office planned to add four new trainee positions next year and will no longer do so, and planned to fill four vacant trainee positions. The Sheriff’s Office also will leave two deputy positions vacant. Altogether, the Sheriff’s Office agreed to wait to fill 10 positions.

Mielke said the reduction in funding for training positions could mean the sheriff’s office will have to make more “lateral hires,” which means hiring commissioned officers from other departments when it has other vacancies instead of training up new recruits. He said the delay on hiring should not significantly impact public safety, but it could lead to slightly higher overtime costs.

“We believe (waiting on) these positions will have the least impact on day-to-day operations and the community,” Mielke said.

Mielke said the Sheriff’s Office also discussed meeting with the county’s budget leaders later in the year to see whether tax revenue had recovered and discuss filling a few of those positions.

Petrovich said several other departments, including the facilities department, assessor and county auditor, agreed to hold off on hiring or rearrange their staff to reduce their total budget requests.

He said one area that could save the county money is its early voluntary retirement program, which ended in September. He said more than 70 county employees volunteered to retire early, which will cost the county about $800,000 upfront. He said not filling those positions, or filling those positions with less experienced employees if they are essential, could also reduce the county’s deficit.

One other change that reduced the deficit was the reduction in revenue that county was anticipating. Petrovich said based on 2020 estimates, he initially projected the county would have around $1 million less in sales tax revenue in 2021.

He said after the sales tax numbers from this year came in, he changed his projections to a $500,000 reduction. He said the county saw significantly less sales taxes in spring, but in the past few months, sales taxes have recovered and he believes revenue may recover slightly faster than he initially thought.

Petrovich said he plans to talk to a few other departments to see what reductions they make to their budgets, then commissioners will likely need to make decisions on how to balance the budget. He said options could include a shift from the road fund, a tax normally used to pay for roads but that the county has also used to pay for some other expenses, including capitol projects. He said the commissioners could need to dip into reserves, or make large cuts.

In 2017, the county was facing a $9.4 million budget shortfall and commissioners opted to make some cuts, including $400,000 from the Spokane Regional Health District, and use some road construction funds.

Spokane County Commissioners did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier in the month, County Commissioner Al French said the county may have to dip into reserves to balance the 2021 budget. Commissioner Mary Kuney called reserves a “last resort,” and she and Commissioner Josh Kerns said if the county had to use reserves, it should only be for one-time expenses.

Spokane County will have a budget hearing on Nov. 10 at which the public will have a chance to share its thoughts with commissioners. The hearing is at 2 p.m. and can be viewed on the county’s YouTube channel or listened to by calling (509) 477-4050 and using the login code 330641.

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