Kitsap prosecutor voices budget concerns
November 20, 2008 · Updated 9:42 AM
The Kitsap County prosecutor has criticized 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.
“If the commissioners reach in and cut my budget beyond what I have suggested, it will endanger public safety,” said Russ Hauge. “I will do everything I can to keep this from happening.”
In a memo to the commissioners that Hauge made public, he stated, “There is a fair and simple way to charge and collect what should be the fees for our services. To date, the Board of Commissioners has chosen not to pursue it. ... In light of this money that is available outside of the general fund, I cannot in good conscience, as the elected prosecutor for Kitsap County, take that course. I have determined that to choose to maintain our level of service to civil clients while impairing our ability to respond to criminal behavior would be a breach of my duty.”
Up to now, other departments have not complained about needing to make cuts, at least publicly.
Hauge admits to going public out of frustration with the board’s unwillingness to pursue an action that was available to it since the last budget cycle.
Sales taxes, one of the county’s chief revenue sources, has dipped severely in recent months, causing the county to readjust its projections several times.
This has resulted in a required $5.9 million shortfall. County Administrator Nancy Buonanno Grennan said Wednesday morning that the budget was about $1 million out of balance, and the money would be taken from reserves.
Each department was required to cut an additional 2.2 percent of its budget, which in the prosecutor’s case translates 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.
Hauge was willing to make the sacrifices until earlier this month, when he learned of a alternate funding source that would allow the prosecutor to “bill” other departments for services and transfer the amount to the general fund, where the shortfall exists.
“If the prosecuting attorney functioned like the Information Technology Department, we wouldn’t need lose these positions,” Haugue said, estimating that it could generate about $900,000 countywide — coincidentally an amount close to the board’s projected shortfall.
Hauge said the action would not impact his department’s budget, other than making the cuts unnecessary. The money would go directly into the general fund, where the shortfall exists.
This is the second consecutive year that all departments have made deep cuts. Grennan said the process was more difficult this time around, since they were already operating at austerity levels.
She said that every department “stepped up to the plate,” and some — like the Clerk’s Office — even exceeded requirements.
Grennan said that all the departmental budgets have already been completed, and that it would be hard to attach another expense at this time.
For instance, if the prosecutor were able to bill the Public Works Department for legal services, that amount would need to be cut from some other place.
“It’s too late in the day to do this now,” she said, “although we will consider it next year.”
Hauge, however, said the idea was mentioned last year and postponed. He went along with the program, but was surprised earlier this month to find that it had again been omitted from the plan.
He wrote a 2,600-word memo and submitted it to the commissioners, but decided to go public after they failed to respond.
Grennan said she was not upset with Hauge for speaking out, and that, “He is an elected official with a constitutional mandate. I have no problem with that.”
She acknowledged that the idea was examined last year and was tabled.
“We looked at it last year but determined it wasn’t feasible at that time,” she said. “This year, with staff changes and other factors, it dropped off the list.”
Ben Holland, who supervised last year’s budget, retired in March and was replaced by Shawn Gabriel in September. The budget process continued during this time.
Hauge said his office follows a list of priorities, noting in his memo that, “There will never be enough in a public budget to pursue all offenders for every offense. (The priority list is) a triage tool, developed for the situation now facing the county.
“We have already had to make some money-based compromises in the ‘property crime’ category,” Hauge wrote. “We refer simple bad-check cases to a diversion service that focuses on restitution ... Serious property offenders, like identity thieves, now get our full attention. But full attention requires a full complement of lawyers and keeping track of the criminal files. Someone has to read the reports and determine whether and what to charge. All members of this office work very hard. They cannot do any more with any less.”
Grennan said county departments would learn to live with diminished legal service, that, “They may have to wait longer for an answer, and cannot ask the prosecutor to research every issue.”
She said that the area that would suffer the most would be preventive, where the prosecutor would not be able to supply all the information needed to head off potential litigation.
Which is Hauge’s point — if the right legal advice is not given, it can cost the county considerably in outside legal fees or a lawsuit.
“Everyone has needed to make substantial cuts,” Grennan said. “This is not a pretty budget.”
The latest budget is due for posting on www.kitsapgov.com by end of day Nov. 19. Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Hauge's complete memo to the Kitsap County Commissioners is as follows: