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County hiring freeze expires

The hiring freeze imposed by Kitsap County government as a means to cut costs and streamline its operation is scheduled to end this month, theoretically allowing departments to fill vacant positions without approval of the county commissioners.

Even so, departments are not likely to add personnel, since the volatile economy could force staff cuts that would eliminate the new hires.

“We’re facing a serious decline in tax revenue,” said Administrative Service Director Shawn Gabriel. “Once we get the final numbers for the first quarter, in the first part of April, we should have a better idea about what to expect.”

There are no scheduled commissioner meetings until April 13, so the freeze will expire unless there is a special meeting to effect its renewal. Gabriel said department heads have worked under severe budget restrictions for several months, and are not likely to use the absence of a freeze to act irresponsibly.

In other words, department heads will need to show restraint when it comes to hiring and not do anything that will tip the scales of the county budget.

This behavior will not be guided by policy but will be driven by a version of the honor system.

The commissioners have worked to streamline the budget for the past two years, ever since Ben Holland, Gabriel’s predecessor, warned against economic disaster without immediate budget cutbacks.

Despite periodic revisions to the budget numbers, the situation has steadily worsened.

Sales tax revenue has fallen, and last year’s projection of a $2 million deficit has risen to nearly $3.1 million according to Gabriel.

This has forced a change in behavior on all levels. For example, the monthly meeting with elected officials, which has occurred for the past several years, have added structure.

In the past, these meetings have occurred at local restaurants. These gatherings are often informal, with policy discussions peppered with sports talk and a discussion of current events.

This month the event took place in the commissioners’ chambers as participants brought their own sandwich or salad.

While there was no formal agenda, the group spent close to two hours discussing specific service cuts as well as a general desire to do a better job of offering employees an accurate economic forecast.

“If we’re going to cut $3 million, we are not going to be able to accomplish this without cutting personnel,” said County Clerk Dave Peterson. “I think we owe it to our employees to tell them what to expect, so they know whether they will have a job from one month to the next.”

Added County Auditor Walt Washington, “I’d rather have a realistic idea about what to expect so I can take the needed action all at once. It would be better to make a hard decision today instead of having to come back to the table every month.”

The commissioners agreed they should open an information channel to the employees, perhaps with a series of special meetings where they are encouraged to ask questions about forecasts and receive explicit answers.

No meetings will be scheduled, however, until the board is clear about what the message will be.

But even if the message is not completely developed, some officials favor holding the meetings anyway.

“There are a lot of rumors around the courthouse,” Peterson said. “People are saying that we will cut back to 36 hours a week, or stay closed one day a week. I think we need to address these rumors, tell the employees what to expect, before it gets out of hand.”

By its appearance, closing the county government for a day each week could offer substantial savings. In reality, the savings are far less than 20 percent.

Utility savings could only reach the hundreds of dollars, and a closure could draw necessary resources from other departments that could cancel out the utility savings.

Or, as Superior Court Judge Russell Hartman pointed out, court dates are scheduled months in advance.

“Cutting 20 percent of the judicial staff is not practical,” he said. “There has to be a better way to save money than cutting services.”

While there is some flexibility in developing the budget, there are certain functions that are mandated and cannot be cut.

As a result, the county may need to cut programs that are not required, even if they are popular or helpful.

In this manner, Washington suggested that the voter’s pamphlet, which provides a baseline explanation of candidate positions and ballot issues for each election, may be discontinued.

“The voter’s pamphlet is a nice thing for us to do for the citizens,” Washington said. “But it’s not something that we are required to do. We may only be able to provide mandated services.”

County services will not automatically return if the economy recovers, as the factors that first precipitated Holland’s gloomy 2007 analysis are still in place.

North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer doesn’t want the county to think their problems will be solved when the recession ends. Counties, as before, will be limited to an annual tax increase of 1 percent.

“We have to see the recession in a bigger context,” Bauer said.

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