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Pierce County government would shrink next year under Executive McCarthy’s budget

Post by Joe Turner on Sep. 22, 2009 at 3:00 pm |
September 28, 2009 1:22 pm

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy unveiled her 2010 budget to the County Council this afternoon. Here’s what I wrote for Wednesday’s print edition. Scroll down beyond my story to see McCarthy’s news release.

BY Joseph Turner
The News Tribune

The size of Pierce County government’s work force would continue to shrink next year under the budget proposed Tuesday by County Executive Pat McCarthy.

There would be 284 fewer fulltime workers on the county payroll in 2010 — a decline of 8.4 percent from this year’s numbers — as the size of the workforce would drop to 3,106 fulltime employees. That is 13 fewer workers than the county had 10 years ago even though the county’s population has increased to 813,000 residents. That’s about 100,000 more than last decade.

McCarthy unveiled her budget to the County Council at a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Her budget for 2010 calls for spending $792 million, which is $70 million lower than was budgeted this year. That is a decline of 8.2 percent.

Council chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, said the council will hold its first budget workshop Oct. 7 and members hope to adopt a budget by Nov. 10.

Although council members haven’t read the full 420-page document, they were pleased to see that the Democratic county executive incorporated many of the budget guidelines set out by the council, Bush said.

They included the council’s wish to minimize cuts to public safety and not to implement a program that called for installing traffic cameras to catch motorists who run red lights, he said.

For the first time in 25 years, the county’s general fund budget — the one that pays for day-to-day operations — will be smaller than it was the year before, budget director Patrick Kenney said. It would drop from $278 million to $270 million, a decline of 2.6 percent.

“The worst recession since the Great Depression has forced us to take a new look at how we provide quality public services to our citizens in the face of declining revenues,” McCarthy told the council.

Her budget “will not make many people happy,” she added.

Kenney said although the county expects to collect about 2.5 percent more money from property taxes in 2010, its real estate and sales taxes collections are expected to skid even further, reflecting a slow recovery from a recession that is now about two years old.

As previously reported, McCarthy also wants to pull the plug on poll voting and will be trying to get county workers to shoulder a share of their health coverage next year as they negotiate contracts this fall. Kenney said the county now pays close to $1,000 a month for medical and dental coverage per worker, and the county bears the full cost for all but a handful of county workers who pay 10 percent of the cost of their health care premiums.

“In this day and age, that shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

State workers pay 12 percent of their health care costs. The average in the private sector for large companies is more than 25 percent.

That could be a sticking point with unions, Bush said.

Kenney said health care premiums are expected to rise 10 to 12 percent in 2010 but McCarthy’s budget assumes county government will spend no more on health care next year that it did this year. That would suggest employees either will have to pick up that increase or settle for a health plan with poorer benefits.

The County Council will be holding public hearings on the budget proposal and expects to adopt a 2010 budget before its customary Thanksgiving holiday deadline.

The county workforce reached its peak in 2008, when there were 3,488 workers. Next year’s budget would have 382 fewer workers from that level.
Kenney said the county hopes to wrap up its medical insurance negotiations by the end of the year since plans take effect Jan. 1.

HERE ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS OF THE COUNTY EXECUTIVE’S BUDGET PROPOSAL

–Criminal justice programs — sheriff, prosecutor, jail, courts — account for 76 percent of the county’s budget, but those agencies absorbed only 53 percent of the cuts, Kenney said. Even so, the sheriff’s department would lose 21 employees, the prosecutor would have 16 fewer and the jail would operate with nearly 17 fewer workers under McCarthy’s proposed budget.
–Fee increases, most of them in the planning and land services area, would raise an additional $1.3 million next year if approved by the council. That’s an average 6.8 percent increase in fees.
–The county Parks and Recreation Department would eliminate services at 16 parks, including Breseman Forest, Mayfair, Swan Creek, Seeley Lake and the Purdy Sand Spit.
–Services would be reduced at 13 other parks, including Sprinker Recreation Center, Lakewood Community Center, Lake Tapps County Park, Foothills Trail and Sunrise Beach.
–The budget assumes county workers will get 2.5 percent pay raises next year. That’s the minimum already set in many employee contracts.
–The impact of Initiative 747, which limits the increase in property tax collections to no more than 1 percent from the previous year, has risen to $48.6 million for 2010, Kenney said.
–The budget assumes sewer utility rates will increase by 2.5 percent next year.
–Many county departments are balance their respective budgets by assuming their workers will take unpaid furloughs. That varies from one department to another, Kenney said.

joe.turner@thenewstribune.com
Joseph Turner: 360-786-1826
blogs.thenewstribune.com/politics

Here is the budget news release from the county executive’s office:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sept. 22, 2009

Facing the worst economic climate in decades, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy submitted a 2010 budget to the County Council today that would make substantial spending cuts while preserving public safety and economic development as the top priorities.

Under the Executive’s proposal, more than 200 County jobs would be cut next year, and some programs would be consolidated, reduced or eliminated. Criminal justice, which accounts for three quarters of County spending, would be protected from proportionate cuts. And the budget would fund initiatives aimed at business and job growth that would help the local economy rebound.

“The worst recession since the Great Depression has forced us to take a new look at how we provide quality public services to our citizens in the face of declining revenues,” Executive McCarthy said during her presentation to the Council. “My goal was to find a balance in the continuity of effective programs and the stability of our system.”

The seven-member Pierce County Council has scheduled a series of budget hearings over the coming weeks to review the proposed spending plan for next year. Final approval is scheduled for Nov. 10.

In her address to the Council, Executive McCarthy pointed out a pair of notable “firsts” in the budget – neither of them good.

– In what might be the first time in history, the County’s assessed valuation total is projected to decrease from the prior year – from $92.6 billion in 2009 to $88.6 billion in 2010.

– It is the first time in at least 20 years that the County is considering a reduction in the General Fund budget. The Executive’s proposal cuts the General Fund by 2.6 percent, from $277.8 million to $270.6 million.

When factoring in total County spending, the Executive’s budget reduces spending by $70 million, which is 8 percent below the 2009 budget.

Every department in Pierce County government would be negatively impacted in 2010.

The Executive’s budget proposes to cut 109 jobs that are funded by the General Fund. The total increases to 285 jobs when positions funded by other accounts are added. That would leave the total County workforce at 3,106 positions, down 11 percent from the peak of 3,488 in 2008.

In addition to the staff cuts, at least eight departments that are funded by the General Fund are budgeting for staff furloughs in 2010.

“Keep in mind that we serve a growing population of 813,000,” Executive McCarthy told the Council. “Pressure to provide criminal justice, road maintenance, utilities and countless other services to our citizens continues to increase as our county gets larger.”

The Executive asked her department heads and the county’s independently elected sheriff, prosecuting attorney, assessor-treasurer and judges to make recommendations regarding what to cut from their budgets.

“In many cases, I accepted their recommendations,” Executive McCarthy said. “But I challenged them to make sure the changes and reductions are strategic.”

The cuts are not proportional to the amount of funding a department or service area receives. For example, criminal justice services consume 76 percent of General Fund spending, but the proposed cuts in those programs equal just 53 percent of the total spending cuts.

“This is a very difficult budget,” the Executive said. “Public safety is my top priority, and while criminal justice programs had to take some cuts due to their overwhelming proportion of County spending, I am proud of my budget team for finding ways to mitigate the reductions.”

Some of those mitigating strategies include tapping reserves from internal County funds, such as the information technology, self-insurance and facilities management funds. Elsewhere, federal stimulus grants will help the sheriff, prosecutor and Superior Court.

The Executive’s budget seeks to promote economic development in Pierce County by continuing initiatives that consolidate the County code, make improvements in permitting predictability, and recommend changes in infrastructure policies to help facilitate private investment that targets job growth.

One of the largest spending cuts in the Executive’s budget would come in the category known as Miscellaneous Current Expense. This catch-all category has typically funded such items as the County’s dues to such membership organizations as the Washington State Association of Counties, support for such nonprofit agencies as Safe Streets and senior centers, and contributions to neighborhood and civic groups that use the money for arts, cultural activities, entertainment, historic preservation and other needs. The Executive’s budget proposes to cut this miscellaneous category by $900,000, or 24 percent. Priority was given to public safety and human services.

The Parks and Recreation Department proposes to eliminate services at 16 parks, including Breseman Forest, Mayfair Park, Swan Creek, Seeley Lake and the Purdy Sand Spit. Services would be reduced at 13 park sites, including Sprinker Recreation Center, Lakewood Community Center, Lake Tapps County Park, Foothills Trail, and Sunrise Beach.

Over the next seven weeks, Executive McCarthy, some of her department directors and the County’s other independently elected leaders will meet with the Council to review the spending proposals and revenue forecasts in detail. The Council’s budget hearings are broadcast live on C-RCC TV (channel 22 on Comcast and Click!, and channel 78 on Rainier Connect). Council meetings are also streamed live at www.rcc.pierce.wa.us/.

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