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Pierce County budget: community groups face cuts, fees may rise

Post by David Wickert on May 13, 2009 at 10:55 am with No Comments »
May 13, 2009 10:55 am

You can hear the gnashing of teeth at the County-City Building as Pierce County tries to address a projected $13 million revenue shortfall.

County Executive Pat McCarthy is considering several measures that are sure to be unpopular as she tries to balance the budget. Here’s more information about two of those measures.

Cuts to community groups. For years the county executive and council have doled out money to community groups, festivals and other pet projects. Council members say they use the money to target specific needs in their districts, like street lights, senior centers and youth programs.

The spending is lumped into a catch-all budget category called "miscellaneous current expense." It also includes some mandatory spending like unemployment insurance and severance reserves.

Last year the county budgeted $6.1 million for miscellaneous current expenses. This year’s budget initially included $4.8 million. But the council cut that to $4.1 million as part of an initial round of budget cuts in March.

On Tuesday county budget director Pat Kenney told the council that McCarthy likely will propose eliminating most miscellaneous current expense spending in her 2010 budget. He said she will propose spending on "very, very, very few" outside programs next year.

Council members – who like spending money more than cutting budgets – greeted that news with silence.

Planning department fees. Kenny said McCarthy likely will propose a substantial increase in planning department fees next year. The fees are assessed for building permits, plan reviews and other department services.

The idea is to make the department more self-sustaining and less dependent on general fund revenue. The goal would be to have fees cover 80 percent of the planning department’s budget.

Recent history shows the 80 percent mark wouldn’t be unusual. From 1995 to 2006, fees covered anywhere from 66 percent to 94 percent of the department’s budget. But fees fell to 64 percent of its budget in 2007 and to 44 percent in 2008. Kenney estimates fees will cover 44 percent of the planning department budget again this year.

"This is simply inappropriately low," Kenney told the council.

Planning department officials have long argued that Pierce County fees are low compared to those of other local governments. But fee hikes are unpopular with local builders.

Last fall the council rejected proposed planning department fee increases. As budgets get tighter, it may get tougher to resist an increase.

But council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, suggested customers should get better service if fees rise.

"To raise fees is only one side of the picture," Bush said.

Pierce County
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