Budget process not exactly ‘must-see’ TV

Putting together the 2011 Kitsap County general fund budget isn’t quite like trying to herd cats, but there are similarities.

The county commissioners have to adopt a budget before December’s end to appropriate funds for each department, but they cannot tell the other elected county officials how to spend the money.

The other officials (Assessor, Auditor, Clerk, Coroner, Prosecutor, Sheriff and Treasurer) and the judges have the responsibility and authority to determine how to perform their duties with the funds appropriated for each of them.

And, of course, the others have more detailed knowledge of their departments than the commissioners could ever hope to attain.

So the commissioners have to get enough information to understand what could be done and what would be the impact on services performed by each one.

If current plans, policies and staffing remain unchanged, projected spending would be roughly $5 million more than projected revenue.

The main task is to close this budget gap by determining which plans, policies and staffing have to be changed to reduce spending — or get additional revenue.

For the past two weeks, the commissioners have been meeting with the other elected officials, department heads, and organizations that provide services to the county to hear how each one proposes to close the gap.

Rather than simply making across-the-board cuts, the objective is to maintain service levels in higher priority programs to the extent practicable by making smaller spending cuts in some programs and bigger cuts in others.

This is the reason for the commissioners’ request that each budget submission identify how cuts of 7 percent and 9 percent below the projected budget “baseline” could be achieved.

If changing spending plans in one program to achieve a 9 percent reduction seems manageable, some other program could reduce projected spending by less than 7 percent.

When a suggested plan for dealing with the budget gap doesn’t at first glance seem to fit with the commissioners’ own ideas about government priorities, further questions and efforts at persuasion occur.

It’s not that our elected officials are as headstrong as cats, but achieving a meeting of the minds as they all try to move toward the same goal isn’t always easy.

Some programs may experience dramatic reductions in service levels if projected spending is significantly reduced — enough to make the commissioners reluctant to accept the proposed ways of dealing with the budget gap.

For example, the juvenile justice system may have less ability to detain young offenders because of reduced capacity at the juvenile detention center.

The same thing may occur with adult offenders, if the county jail has fewer corrections officers.

These facilities are organized into modules, and reducing personnel below a certain number requires closing one or more of the “pods.”

The drop in capacity can be bigger than the percentage decline in staffing.

Even when declines don’t result from the physical attributes of a facility, programs can become significantly less effective when staffing levels drop below a certain point.

In each situation the commissioners try to understand the options and their impacts before deciding which cuts have to be accepted and which programs can be spared from bigger cuts.

Maybe it will turn out that something resembling an across the board cut of roughly 7 percent happens, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Since most South Kitsap residents live outside the Port Orchard city limits, changes in county services to close the budget gap may be something we cannot all ignore.

Anyone wanting to know what was discussed in these meetings can view the recorded sessions online along with the written submissions at the county’s website, if they missed the local cable television broadcasts.

If particular programs are of more interest, people need not sit through the whole thing to learn about them.

It’s not the same as an electronic town hall meeting, but it’s close.

Residents can learn what is being considered and submit comments to the county government online.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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