Saturday, June 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

County budget nips and tucks to avoid slashes

The 2013 budget proposed by Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, now facing council discussion, calls for a collection of cuts that total about $1.6 million next year from its $275 million General Fund. Those cuts are largely seen as rounding errors when compared to Tacoma’s $63 million in reductions from its $396 million biennial General Fund of its $2.77 billion in spending across all accounts. “Things are tight, but they are manageably tight,” said Councilmember Dick Muri, who is the chair of the council’s Audit Committee. “Everyone is going to have to take a little bit of a hit. It doesn’t even compare to Tacoma.” McCarthy’s total 2013 budget plan, $884 million over all county accounts, is $44 million more than the 2012 budget. But those dollars are largely dedicated funds such as roads and construction projects. The General Fund portion keeps the county’s current spending on public safety, which represents almost 80 percent of the General Fund with spending at the Sheriff’s Department, Correctional Operations, judicial services, emergency management and county attorneys. But nearly 20 percent of that Sheriff’s Department spending is covered through grants and inter-agency contracts, not from the general fund itself.

“Given the slow pace of the economic recovery, we expect that revenues will continue to be limited in 2013,” McCarthy wrote in her budget summary. “That means our General Fund must continue to live within its means just like the families and businesses we serve.” Some 33 full-time equivalent positions are set to be cut around the workforce that draws salaries from the General Fund. About half of those are expected to come from unfilled vacancies or retirements. Negotiations are underway with the county’s 23 labor units regarding salaries and benefits that may further change that number. While there may be layoffs, the county operates largely at the departmental level, she said. Each department is allocated a budget and tasked with making the numbers work, so staff reductions could be avoided by finding savings in other areas of the department’s spending. Since 2008, the county government has cut 14 percent of its workforce and approximately $90 million in total spending per year. Cumulatively speaking, the latest round of cuts will mean a total reduction of some 514 positions since 2008. But about half of those were caused with the shift in Regional Support Services that are now handled by the state.

“We are not relying on grants or bailouts or wishes for better times. This is a stable and sustainable budget,” McCarthy said. “It relies on realistic revenue assumptions, builds on our goal of enhancing customer service, and continues investments in key areas that help our economy and communities grow and prosper.” Planning and Land Services Department, for example, has seen a 10 percent increase in permits issued despite a 25 percent decrease in walk-ins to the Development Center and losing more than half its staff in the past three years. The department has shrunk from 187 positions to 87 currently. The workforce gap has been filled with a rise of permits being filed online instead of in person. “We took the car apart; we took the department apart to see how it worked and then we reconstituted it and made it better,” McCarthy said. “Is it perfect? No, just we are certainly on the right track.” Final approval of a 2013 budget is expected to face a vote on either Nov. 6 or Nov. 13.