Task force probing county’s financial woes

Our county commissioners have appointed a budget advisory committee to consider long-term trends in spending and revenue and to recommend particular policies that ought to be followed.

The idea is not to draft the coming year’s budget or even necessarily change what is done this fall as the commissioners adopt a budget, although there could be an effect by then.

Instead, the committee will look at budget trends from the past several years and projected spending and revenues in the coming years in an effort to understand what is happening and what adjustments may be needed.

The committee consists of 13 county residents, including five of us from South Kitsap.

At least one of us hopes not to regret having joined in the effort.

You can probably guess which one – carping every other week from the outside looking in is less risky than becoming the potential target of well-founded criticism.

The committee members have a relatively broad range of experience, but such a small number of county residents could never know everything community members know about or expect from county government.

Instead of deciding county policy, the committee will be saying what they think ought to be policy and why it ought to be.

The “why” part of any recommendations will perhaps be more important than the “what,” since the commissioners should be expected to make policy based on apparently sound reasons rather than the mere fact that a majority of the committee favored one policy or another.

Since any policy changes would likely affect county residents — for example, by modifying the services provided to them or the costs they pay — the committee’s stated reasons must eventually stand up to scrutiny by the community as a whole.

Recognizing the limitations of such a small number of advisory committee members, it would be best if our fellow residents pipe up now and then to let us all know what is on your minds.

If there are things you want considered, don’t assume the committee members or county officials and employees who assist the committee also have those things on their minds.

It would be a waste to come up with recommendations that are so far from what the majority of county residents want that no rationale could bridge the gap.

Speaking for myself, not for the committee, it seems there are several general objectives that need to be attained — and it would be useful to know what others are thinking along these lines.

Expenditures from the general fund had been rising faster than revenues, and we need to understand why – especially if it is true that they would probably rise faster than revenues in the future unless changes are made.

Pie charts showing what proportion of spending goes to each broad area don’t tell us why the “pie” itself increases at a faster rate than revenue, nor do statements that each function is an essential part of county government.

Granting that we need to set priorities so that essential functions are performed, we also have to know what resources are unavoidably necessary to perform those functions.

If we ask government to do something new, it probably requires greater revenue to accomplish; but increasing taxes to do the same old things isn’t necessarily required.

Our leaders have to know whether revenue increases exceed the growth in total personal income.

If the taxes we pay rise faster than the personal income used to pay them over the long term, there must come a point at which taxpayers as a group resist further increases no matter what the purpose.

Individuals in the group will always have different abilities to carry their share of the tax burden; but when the total personal income of the group grows less than the taxes the group pays, no one can avoid feeling the pinch.

Hearing that “unfunded mandates” create the need for more revenue doesn’t really tell us what has occurred. We need to know just what has been mandated and what it costs.

The economy has its highs and lows which affect the amount of revenue collected by existing taxes and the ability of government to do what we ask of it.

We need to know the likely extent of the lows, so we understand what amount needs to be held in reserve funds to make it through those lows.

We and our leaders need to know the long-term trend in revenues, so that spending does not grow during the economy’s highs as though the highs are the norm.

The goal is to limit spending to what can be sustained over the long term, and this requires that we as a community have a general knowledge of what it takes to accomplish the goal.

Robert Meadows is a

Port Orchard resident.

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