Both Kitsap County and Port Orchard face tough budget choices

The Kitsap County Commissioners will hold a meeting on Monday to give its 2010 budget a public hearing, but those who testify against particular cuts might get no satisfaction.

“There is a chance that public testimony could change whether something is cut,” said County Administrator Nancy Buonanno Grennan. “But if we restore something, that means we will need to cut somewhere else.”

Monday’s meeting will allow the public to provide input about the budget document, which is viewable at The final budget is due for ratification on Dec. 14, which is the last regular commissioners’ meeting of 2009.

Included will be a resolution for the commissioners to raise property taxes 1 percent, the maximum legally allowable limit.

On a parallel track, the Port Orchard City Council will again address its own 1 percent property tax hike at Tuesday night’s regular meeting. The same resolution was shut down two weeks ago when several council members declined to support it because of a campaign promise to not raise any taxes without voter approval--even if it is for a seemingly insignificant $1* per $100,000 of assessed value.

Both actions fall under a “substantial need” designation

Port Orchard’s action will gain the city around $12,000, while the county tax hike will net about $270,000. If both amounts seem insignificant when compared to the total budget, they will make the equivalent amount of cuts to other programs unnecessary.

In Port Orchard’s case, the $12,000 is designed to keep services at the same level, and not commit to any additional spending.

The county action differs as service cuts are bound to occur whether the tax increase is implemented or not.

The proposed tax increases will only affect the portions of the total amount that are controlled by the city and the county which adds up to about 25 percent of the total tax bill, according to Kitsap County Assessor Jim Avery. The percentages are not added together, that both the city and county are raising their levy rates it does not mean the average tax bill will increase two percent. Rather, only the portion controlled by the two government entities will go up that amount.

All property taxes are collected with regard to the value and location of the house, but one illustration is these combined actions will cause a $1,000 tax bill to increase around $2.50.

With the ailing economy, any tax increase will draw public skepticism, if not anger. Avery, however, said that all property owners should expect a three percent yearly property tax increase, regardless of economic conditions.

There is little doubt the county will approve its increase. Up to this point, county budget shortfalls have been covered by reserve funds. These have been cut in half, to about $4 million. This is now an unacceptable level, with the commissioners stating that depleting these funds any further would endanger the county if there were to be an emergency.

“It is at the point where we must live within our means," Grennan said; echoing a sentiment that has been voiced by all county employees from the commissioners on down. Added acting assistant budget director Susanne Yost “there are certain costs that are out of our control.”

The latest budget adds up to $81 million, $10 million less than the numbers for 2007 when concerns about the budget first surfaced. During this time the county has taken a number of budget-cutting measures, the most drastic being the closure of county offices on Friday. This has saved utility and fuel costs, since employees are no longer using county cars to travel on Friday.

The largest savings resulting from the closure is personnel, as it has prompted an average 10 percent decrease in hours, and the corresponding salary and benefits cost. Additionally, there will be no salary increases for anyone in 2010. And while Grennan stops short of saying that county employees are lucky to be working, she said “the new salary increase is no decrease.”

The county is attempting to compensate for cuts in actual services with an increase in a depth of virtual ones, improving the scope of the county web site. This only works up to a point. County Treasurer Barbara Stephenson said the real estate community is already inconvenienced by the inability to complete a title transaction on Friday.

Such cutbacks may not be “sexy,” in the words of County Clerk Dave Peterson. He feels administrative decreases have an equal significance to the loss of a sheriff’s deputy, a possibility that gets the public attention.

Other “unsexy" actions included a hiring freeze, spending freeze, travel cutbacks and personnel layoffs.

Additionally, the county has consolidated services, with two key responsibilities moved out of the Administrative Services Department. Facilities management has been moved into the Information Services Department, and the Personnel Department has taken on the administration of the block grants program--a move that Grennan said “makes sense.”

As the Administrative Services Department is losing its director, the departing Shawn Gabriel, his replacement will earn a lower salary. This could save about $15,000, with a similar savings attributable to Grennan’s own 15 percent volunteer pay cut.

If all of these consolidations are such good ideas, members of the public may wonder why they were not implemented in an earlier budget cycle. The unofficial answer is they weren’t needed, and that it would be difficult to lay off employees when the money to pay them is available. Grennan said that spending will never return to previous levels and that governments will operate on a leaner model in the future.

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to force a new way of doing business,” she said.

* corrected from an earlier version.

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