Opinion

Live from Port Orchard — it’s budget gridlock

Kitsap County government will try its hand at producing a reality show in the coming weeks to make it possible for residents to see and hear some of the discussions that occur while writing the budget for 2011.

On both cable television and the county’s Web site, the commissioners’ budget meetings with department heads and other elected officials will be broadcast.

The action probably won’t be as interesting as some reality shows that have captured the attention of so many viewers, but in this case voters and taxpayers may find it useful to listen to even the boring parts.

If you tend to daydream when boredom sets in, try imagining the action involves a sinking ship rather than the county’s general fund budget.

The government functions supported by the general fund are the cargo, passengers and crew.

The ship’s hull is so leaky that the water coming in cannot be pumped out fast enough to stay afloat to the voyage’s end.

As usual in such cases, the immediate effort involves tossing cargo and baggage overboard to lighten the load so the ship floats higher in the water for a while.

When there is no more to be tossed, passengers and some crew members are asked to jump off and swim to nearby islands where they can be picked up later.

If the hull isn’t repaired to slow or stop the leaks, the voyage won’t serve its purpose.

The ship will arrive at its destination with a skeleton crew and neither the cargo nor the passengers.

It wasn’t the purpose of the voyage merely to get the ship to the port. The idea was to deliver the cargo and passengers.

In essence, this is the situation faced by county government.

The county’s rising costs are like the water leaking through the hull — they can’t be met by current revenues.

Functions can be curtailed and the number of employees can be reduced to lighten the load, but these steps only delay the inevitable.

If so much is cut from what the county government does that it cannot provide the services residents need and want, then it doesn’t serve its intended purpose.

As you watch this reality show, pay close attention to the distinction between lightening the load and fixing the leaks.

One buys time at the expense of the voyage’s purpose, while the other makes it possible to do what was intended at the start.

For example, the county commissioners are considering a program suggested by other elected officials which would offer severance packages to employees who volunteer to swim ashore.

This may help, since negotiations to modify any collective bargaining agreement restrictions on layoffs might be unnecessary.

Our elected officials would still need to decide whether functions can be continued without the services of the volunteers, but at least they could get to the crux of the matter quickly.

Costs would be temporarily reduced, which helps balance the coming year’s budget, but the trend of rising costs outpacing revenues would be unchanged.

If regular increases in employee compensation — both pay and benefits — aren’t brought into line with revenue, it won’t be long before someone else has to go.

The alternative to restraining the long-term growth in the county’s costs as employer is to increase taxes, which would be like using another pump to remove the water.

If you believe tax increases wouldn’t be needed if government would merely perform its “core functions,” you might watch this reality show and try to spot things that aren’t core functions.

Maybe the county should dedicate a Web page to comments from viewers who think they know who or what can be tossed without making the voyage useless.

Once everyone has had a chance to toss things overboard and put people ashore, perhaps most of us can agree on whether it is also necessary to fix the leaks or add another pump — or both.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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