Budget committee hears pitches from Kitsap County offices

The volunteer citizen’s budget committee examining Kitsap County’s long-term spending strategy has only met a handful of times, but has already modified how it will gather data and make recommendations.

“We’re still early in the process,” said committee chair Stev-en Maxim, a Poulsbo resident. “We’re looking for ways to reduce the budget across the board, and will have more questions to ask as we proceed.”

The committee, which consists of 12 financially astute volunteers from throughout the county, now meets alternate Monday evenings in the commissioners’ chambers in Port Orchard.

The most recent meeting, which featured representatives of the county clerk and the coroner, took place on Aug. 4.

This is a less-compressed process than the first few meetings, which hosted three presentations at each session.

The committee found it did not have enough time to digest all the information, much less ask the detailed questions about financial operations.

Most of the upcoming meetings host two county officials, although the recent presentation by the Sheriff’s Office took up the entire session.

During this time, Sheriff Steve Boyer and four of his division chiefs gave detailed explanations of their regular tasks.

The presentations were less passionate than previous appearances before the county commissioners, during which Boyer stressed that his department would have great difficulty cutting back any of its services.

If he was less emotional during last week’s session, the tacit message was still the same: The department already has several vacant deputy positions.

To cut more will decrease public safety and increase response time, he said.

While safety isn’t an issue for every department, Maxim expects to see the same attitude from those who appear in front of the committee.

“Everyone is protecting their turf,” he said. “We will be able to do more after we get into a greater level of detail.”

Maxim said that some presentations have been well done, while others were not.

The proof will be in the follow-up, because the presenters are often charged with presenting a certain message and, as he said, protecting their turf.

The committee’s input is not directed toward the current budget, a process that is now on a parallel track.

Instead, its recommendations will focus on the long view and what will need to be changed over the years in order to live within revenue limits.

Committee member Shannon Childs, of Port Orchard, said the budget complications represent a sea change in how government does business, instead of just a rough spot.

“We are looking at the long term,” she said, “not just at fixing a shortfall in the 2009 budget. We’re dealing with lower revenues, lower sales taxes and a slow market. And the Baby Boom generation is changing. People who have been productive will start needing more services. It affects all levels of government.”

In any case, county offices are forced to repeat their efforts, explaining their short-term needs to those developing the current budget while taking the long view with the citizen’s committee.

Much of the material overlaps, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to District Court Administrator Maury Baker.

“There really wasn’t enough time to explain what we do,” Baker said of his department’s appearance in front of the committee, which took place before the more relaxed schedule was adopted. “It didn’t give them the time to ask questions.”

Baker said he did not resent the overlap, even if it caused extra work.

“Government is supposed to be open and accessible, so it sometimes requires extra work to make the public understand what we accomplish,” he said. “But it’s a good exercise. We need to be able to explain our jobs in a way that makes sense. It makes you question yourself if you can’t do this.”

Committee meetings are open to the public, but few people aside from presenters and staff have attended so far.

Childs would like to see more people come to the meetings, but understands that most people don’t go to meetings if the topic doesn’t influence them directly.

However, she expects that, “We may see a lot of people come to the meetings before this is over.”

In the meantime, the bi-weekly meetings will contribute to an eventual cost-cutting consensus.

“We expect the county to provide for us,” Maxim said. “We need to develop a benchmark for cost-reduction, and decide which services are extravagant and which need to be maintained.”

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