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Pierce County cuts spending, raises fees for 2010. More cuts may be coming.

Post by David Wickert on Nov. 11, 2009 at 4:48 am |
November 11, 2009 4:56 am

The Pierce County Council Tuesday approved a 2010 budget that cuts more than 300 jobs, raises fees and paves the way for a major consolidation of county government in the year ahead.

The council approved a $269.3 million general fund budget that’s about 7 percent smaller than the 2009 budget adopted a year ago. The result will be fewer sheriff’s deputies on the street, longer lines for building permits and sporadic closures of some county offices as employees take furloughs.

Though the budget passed with a unanimous vote, no one professed to like it.

Roger Bush
Roger Bush

“No one will say this is a good budget,” said council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham. “It is an ugly budget.”

Tuesday’s vote brings to a close a year of cost-cutting in county government. The council and County Executive Pat McCarthy have cut spending in response to diminished sales taxes, planning fees and other income brought on by the economic recession.

In September McCarthy proposed a 2010 budget that would cut 284 jobs, eliminated services at 16 parks and otherwise trim spending.

The final budget approved by the council goes further. It cuts an additional $2.9 million from the general fund and socks away another $1.5 million in reserve to cover future budget problems.

The big loser: the planning and land services department, which lost $1.9 million on top of cuts already proposed by McCarthy. Between cuts proposed by the council and executive, the department will lose 25 positions, some through layoffs.

Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, said staffing levels in the planning department don’t reflect the low level of permitting activity he thinks will continue into 2011. But planning department director Chuck Kleeberg told the council the staff cut will mean long lines for building permits when the economy turns around.

Other departments also will reduce staff. The sheriff’s department will lose 15 sheriff’s deputies.

“What that will mean is there will be fewer services,” said Sheriff Paul Pastor. “The simple math is, less means less.”

Pastor said he will make the best of the resources he’s given. Crimes that threaten life and property immediately will be a top priority. But he said lower-level property crimes are “probably where things will give.”

Some departments will use furloughs – or unpaid employee leave – to cut costs in 2010. Similar moves this year led departments like planning and district court to close or reduce services for several days.

Spending cuts aren’t the only means the council and executive used to balance the budget. Building permit and other planning fees will rise even as service suffers. Parks fees will increase. So will sewer and surface water rates.

The basic monthly sewer charge for a single family residence will rise $3.93 to $29.65. That’s a 15 percent increase.

The overall county budget – including sewers, roads and a host of other services – is down 7 percent from a year ago to $793 million.

A spokesman for McCarthy said she was studying the council’s final budget and would issue a statement today.

Tough as the budget looks, more cuts may be on the way. The county faces several unknown or possible costs that could bust the budget.

Unemployment and other costs for closing the county’s mental health division this fall are still being calculated. County and union officials are still negotiating the cost of employee health insurance. Lawsuits and other unexpected costs also could affect the budget.

As a result, the council has asked McCarthy to report back in January on how she would cut the budget an additional 1 percent and  3 percent, if needed. And it is pushing to consolidate county departments in an effort to improve efficiency and save money.

“This may be a time when we look back and say, maybe we should have cut further,” Bush said.

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