Community

Budget woes forcing residents to make do with less

t Garrido takes seat as commissioner just as county grapples with the need to economize.

County government changes every year, just as it stays the same.

Kitsap County is no different in this respect, as the end of 2008 finds it dealing with many of the same issues as one year ago.

Like municipalities across the country, it is scrambling for funding sources, as revenue shrinks and costs increase.

In parallel, the county looked to attract new business and industry but nothing on the scope of NASCAR — which dropped its bid to locate a track her in 2007 — emerged to provide a new revenue stream.

“I expect this will get worse,” said North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer. “Around February, when we see exactly how much sales tax revenue we will actually receive, there may need to be some real sacrifices.”

With this in mind, employees, the public and anyone who depends on the county for goods and services are left wondering exactly what more can be cut and what these sacrifices will demand.

“There were two things that contributed to the unexpected shortfall,” Bauer said. “There was a downturn in the economy, which caused a decrease in sales tax revenues. We also have to deal with the structural problem, where the 1 percent annual hike of property taxes we are allowed does not cover the increase in our expenses.”

The commissioners, aided by new Administrative Services Director Shaun Gabriel, spent the summer and fall going over individual budgets.

The staff would meet with each department head and impose a certain level of cuts, usually measured in full-time employees, or FTEs.

Then there were second and third meetings during which a certain amount of horse-trading occurred.

In the end, the people were cut or their existence was justified.

The goal was more or less achieved, although the county found it necessary to draw $1.1 million from its reserves to cover the budget.

Not everyone fell in line. Toward the end of the budget process, Prosecutor Russell Hauge chastised the county commissioners for their unwillingness to pursue a funding source that would ease the current budget crisis and allow his office to maintain current funding levels.

Like every other department head, Hauge was required to cut an additional 2.2 percent of its budget, which translated to $160,000, or one attorney and one legal assistant.

These cuts can have a ripple effect. Hauge supervises criminal and civil divisions. He explored the idea of moving an attorney from civil to criminal, but this would result in more expenses to the county in the long room if civil cases are not properly adjudicated.

After going public with his concerns and saying he could not make the cuts in good conscience, the commissioners decided it was too late to make a shift and that any restoration of Hauge’s budget would come at some other department’s expense.

So Hauge accommodated the limits.

These problems have become universal, but the budget battle has raged in Kitsap since mid 2007. This early alarm resulted in the balancing of the 2008 budget, which made this year’s cuts less severe.

Previously, the strategy was to cut nonessential services in order to convince voters to approve the tax increase that would fund the services.

But the climate changed. In the not too distant past, the approval of law enforcement, library and transit increases were no-brainers.

Since all three were recently defeated, tax increases are no longer an option.

The possibility for the county to run a levy lift, once planned for the end of 2009, is not on anyone’s radar.

The road toward service cuts has already been traveled. A new Web site, www.kitsapgov.com/Kitsap247.html, was established, in order to provide residents with easy access to forms and information without having to drive into Port Orchard between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

This service will expand, with the increased ability to submit forms on-line.

The new Web site is a precursor to the eventual four-day week for the county administration services. Closing facilities on Friday will require a change of public expectations and a rearrangement of schedules, and some salaries will be cut.

On the other hand, it could save some other services from the chopping block.

Other projected changes include a consolidation of phone service, where calls will be routed to a single location.

This idea, which has been in the works for some time, imitates the “Open Line” concept that has been in effect at the Public Works Department for several years. So it is perhaps coincidental that it happens in tandem with budget cuts, and the fact that the commissioners’ office will no longer have a full-time receptionist.

While government’s message is predictable and consistent, there is an expected annual personality change.

In 2009, for the third consecutive year, the county will find itself with a new commissioner, as Charlotte Garrido takes over for Jan Angel in South Kitsap.

While this changes the political balance, it also demonstrates another evolutionary step. The three commissioners listed on the plaque outside the administration building, constructed in 2006, have all moved on.

Additionally, we have a new county auditor and administrative services director — both, coincidentally, African-American.

There is a new Superior Court judge. While this adds up to four people, it is clear that Angel, Karen Flynn, Ben Holland and Leonard Costello have left their mark and will not be easily replaced.

Bauer, whose conciliatory manner has earned him high marks across the political spectrum, easily won his first elected term.

Garrido, who prevailed over Tim Matthes in South Kitsap, ran a similarly cordial campaign. But the two remaining county races, for auditor and Superior Court judge, were fairly contentious.

Walt Washington, who was appointed to replace Karen Flynn, was singled out by his auditor opponent John Clark for imprecise record-keeping and not adhering to state statute about his office’s responsibility.

The first charge led to a $300 fine as long since there were no further violations. The second was dismissed by the voting public, as Clark was defeated by a substantial margin.

For judge, Bruce Danielson was the victim of a pre-primary anonymous accusation about a 10-year old penalty, which may have generated enough sympathy for his campaign to put him in the top two.

His eventual opponent, Jeanette Dalton, was similarly slimed with an old accusation from an anonymous source.

Neither candidate was the source for the material, but it left a bad taste on the contest. Again, the margin was decisive with Dalton winning handily.

If the economy fails to improve, government is likely to get leaner and more efficient — especially if Bauer’s grim prediction comes to pass.

With less money to go around, everyone will need to cut back on nonessentials and will keep a sharper eye on the public figures.

As a result, there could be an attendance increase in commissioners’ meetings. They take place at night.

They’re free and they can be pretty entertaining in the year to come.

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