County commissioners will lessen budget cut for prosecutor, but not auditor
By KAITLIN STROHSCHEIN
Port Orchard Independent Reporter
November 8, 2011 · Updated 7:19 AM
Kitsap County commissioners have decided to alter their 2012 budget after hearing complaints from the county’s auditor and prosecutor.
Deadlines to finish the budget are looming.
“We need to have things finalized by the end of next week at the latest,” Amber D'Amato, the county’s budget and finance officer said Tuesday. “From my perspective, I’m getting nervous that we’re getting close to our deadlines here.”
The commissioners decided to make the changes after hearing arguments Wednesday from Auditor Walt Washington and Prosecutor Russ Hauge that they’re seriously concerned about the magnitude of the cuts proposed for their offices.
Funding of the auditor’s office would drop by 10.9 percent, and the prosecutor’s office would drop by 6.8 percent in the county's proposed 2012 budget.
Hauge called the cuts for his office “unfair, unsafe, and unnecessary” in a memorandum to the commissioners.
“We can honestly say that we can cut $200,000 without doing violence to the service you receive and public receiver,” he said during a meeting with the commissioners Monday morning, but the proposed $700,000 cut would make his office “much less efficient,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office has effective systems in place to deal with its heavy workload, Hauge said.
If the proposed cuts are implemented, though, the systems will change, he said, and the office will become less effective.
Financially, it’s a bad decision, he said.
Revenue from traffic infractions will drop, and the county may need to look elsewhere for some of its legal services.
The prosecutor’s office saves the county a significant amount of money in both areas, Hauge said.
Traffic infractions alone, he said, have brought in about $260,000, and he expects to get about $556,000 this year when all of the money from the cases the office has won is added together.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Hauge said. “If you cut my ability to collect the revenue, it’s going to go away.”
The new inefficiencies caused by the budget cuts could also impact the ability of the prosecutor’s office to act as the county’s attorneys.
“Although it is essential that local government have access to legal counsel, those services are available elsewhere,” Hauge wrote. “We can provide those services much more efficiently than any private firm.”
Lawyers from the prosecutor’s office charge $125 per hour, Hauge said, while outside legal counsel charged an average of $281 last year.
The prosecutor’s office saved the county about $3 million last year, taking that into consideration, he said.
He and the commissioners have labeled the cuts as different percentages of the prosecutor’s budget.
Hauge looks at it in terms of the net budget. The commissioners have looked at it in light of the gross.
The county commissioners labeled their cut to the office as 6.8 percent of their $8.28 million in expenditures for the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office has labeled the cut as 15 percent of their net budget, considering the $3.7 million in revenue they expect to provide.
Besides his financial arguments against the major funding cuts to his office, Hauge also argued that the cuts seemed wrong.
“Why us? Why now?” he asked. “What’s behind the order to reduce our funding request by 15 percent?”
The prosecutor’s office is one of 18 county departments and it uses 6 percent of the county’s general fund budget, and Hauge says it has taken a disproportionate hit.
The commissioners wrote that their “rationale” for the decision was “reduction of expenditures to match the 2010 actual level plus an additional reduction of $300,000.”
Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said that because the prosecutor’s office is a large agency, it is responsible for taking its share of the cuts.
Commissioner Josh Brown said during the meeting that he thought the reductions in the prosecutor’s office should be closer to 3 percent, in line with reductions many other offices received.
The county commissioners should get extensive legal counsel from attorneys at the prosecutor’s office in 2012, to help with major updates to the county’s $1 million comprehensive plan, Brown noted at a Wednesday morning meeting, since the prosecutor’s attorneys are cheaper than alternatives.
The commissioners recently have said that they plan to cut the prosecutor’s budget less than they originally planned, but more than the prosecutor suggested, Commissioner Robert Gelder said during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
The commissioners have considered making up for the difference through a reduction in the public defense reserve.
Walt Washington, the county auditor, also expressed major concerns at a meeting Monday with the commissioners about their proposal to slash his budget by 10.9 percent in one year.
His arguments were apparently less successful than the prosecutors, because the commissioners have, so far, said they plan to stand by their original cut to his budget.
Washington sees it as an unfair penalty, but he said if the commissioners won’t relent, he plans to come up with a new strategy.
“We’re feverishly trying to figure out how to make that work, if they hold firm to that number,” Washington said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“I’m going to work so that it doesn’t impact my customers,” he said. “I’m unwilling to do that.”
The county commissioners said Wednesday that they plan to stand by their funding reduction to the auditor’s office.
“Where are the numbers that support that 11 percent cut? I don’t see how you got there,” he said. “The last I heard was hold the line, and I held the line.”
Washington said it would have been helpful if the commissioners would have at least walked from their office, downstairs to his office, and warned him that the cut was coming, so that he could brace for it.
The auditor’s office has suggested that the commissioners implement the funding drop more slowly, instead of expecting his office to absorb it in one year.
“Rather than hitting me with a $100,000 cut, let me do it incrementally – $20,000 this year, $30,000 next year,” he said.
Or, Washington said, the county could put the office on a self-sustaining system.
“What I really would like to see is my office moved from the general fund to a special revenue fund – like public works or the department of community development,” he said. “We have to break even on the revenue we bring in – we do that.”
Washington’s department has gotten hit by losses in revenue and cuts near 10 percent for each of the past several years, and it’s an unsustainable pattern, he said.
“When we closed on Fridays, we lost $30,000 to $40,000” in revenue, he said.
To recapture some of the lost revenue, Washington said, he worked with business people to open a private sub-agency in Port Orchard that’s open on Fridays and Saturdays — in addition to the auditor’s regular office hours.
“Having done that and got that agency in place, they said, ‘well now you can cut $100,000 from your budget,’” Washington said.
That’s not wise, he said, because the sub-agency is relatively untested.
It opened Oct. 3 and hasn’t yet brought in much revenue.
“If the sub-agent does well, I see it, but you can’t cut (revenue) today,” Washington said.
“I’m trying to be rational, and they’re holding me hostage for the decision we made, to be more efficient,” he said.
At the end of the Wednesday meeting, the commissioners said they planned to stick with the cuts to the auditor’s office, although budget discussions aren’t yet over.
The county made the cuts to complete a budget that’s $981,233 less than last year’s, and about $2.8 million lower than requests from the departments.
There are two main reasons for the decline, said D'Amato, the county’s budget and finance officer.
“If you look at the district court figure, it’s down a lot,” she said, “not necessarily because the prosecutor’s program isn’t working, because we aren’t collecting as much, in general, from traffic infractions.”
The jail is also draining the county’s funding.
“We have a contract with the Department of Corrections to provide incarceration as needed, and they haven’t had to use our jail space as much as we thought,” she said. Additionally, inmate medical costs “are astronomical” this year.
“Jails have become the de facto mental health institutions,” Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer said at Wednesday’s budget discussion, but he said the jails shouldn’t be blamed for the county’s budget issues.
“We need to find solutions to the county’s budget problems. We have to address the structural issues,” he said. “The internal fighting doesn’t serve anyone.”
Besides the cuts to the prosecutor’s and auditor’s departments, the other departments got small increases or decreases – ranging from a 0.4 percent increase for the treasurer’s department to a 5.77 percent increase for the coroner’s office.
At this point, the county commissioners don’t have much time to change their budget, D'Amato said.
Nov. 14 is the deadline to give public notice, and a presentation will be given Nov. 28.
“I think we’ll be there fine,” Gelder said. “I think we are 99 percent there – it’s really the final tweaks next week, and we will have the preliminary budget available for our hearing schedule.”
He said, though, that original drafts of the budget will look different than the final product.
“I think that it was a starting point. It’s a place from which you can begin to have a conversation,” he said. “The challenge is that, when a majority of the services you provide as an organization are provided by people, it’s difficult to do budget cuts that don’t impact people.”