When do budget cuts become ‘scare tactics?’

When budget cuts are necessary in county government, the fact that spending on law enforcement, courts and correctional facilities constitutes a majority of locally funded expenditures means these functions cannot be left untouched.

Unfortunately, the prospect of laying off employees in the law and justice part of county government usually causes two reactions that aren’t helpful in deciding what to do.

Some people, including elected officials, tend to argue that the public will be less safe after such cuts, as though we wouldn’t know this without being told.

The essential nature of law enforcement is undeniable, but stating the obvious gets us nowhere when the revenue doesn’t exist to support the number of county employees we now have.

Others argue that “scare tactics” are being used any time reductions in the law and justice programs are mentioned.

Anyone who thinks along these lines is unlikely to believe any explanation offered for the spending cuts. If scare tactics were being used, of course everything else would be a pretext used to achieve an unstated goal.

The cynics who accuse others of using scare tactics typically follow up with complaints that other parts of government should be cut instead — and with accusations that the unstated goal is a tax hike.

Since other parts of county government haven’t been spared from the previous cuts or the probable future reductions, maybe the county needs to be more explicit in showing what has happened so far.

The true cynics would perhaps ignore a statement of what has occurred, just as they discount projections of what must occur next; but the rest of us might benefit.

The decline in the county’s revenue last year and so far this year has been substantial.

Kitsap County’s 1.2 percent local sales tax pays part of the costs for general government functions, criminal justice programs and correctional facilities.

Revenue from the sales tax declined by 9.3 percent in 2008 and by 9.4 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to last year at this time.

Expressed in dollars rather than percentages, the drop in 2008 was $2.6 million.

If millions more must be cut to avoid running a deficit this year, it’s unlikely that any part of county government can avoid reductions.

There are some indications that the recession may be at or near the bottom, but the county must at least have a plan for cuts if the revenue decline continues.

As one would expect in any organization, whether public or private, county government has been reluctant to lay off employees up to now.

Keeping them, if possible, is often better than having to replace them when the recession ends.

The Department of Community Development was hit hard by layoffs last year, but that was unavoidable in light of the drastic decline in the construction industry.

The county commissioners have used hiring freezes to limit spending by not always hiring replacements for employees who leave.

Postponing the hiring of replacements isn’t practical in all situations, but in some cases it is better than laying off other employees to cut costs.

Reducing payroll costs by cutting the number of paid hours worked can help restrain spending without losing employees, but it can only go so far.

In all cases, whether costs are reduced by layoffs, cutting hours worked, or freezing hiring, services to county residents cannot ordinarily remain at the level they had been.

If the same level of service could be provided by fewer people, the steps to achieve greater efficiency ought to have been taken already — or at least in the immediate future during this recession.

Of course, we expect the county commissioners and other elected officials to make cuts in services we can do without when we have to, rather than in things like law enforcement.

But if the reality is that even law enforcement services have to be reduced, then they need to do a good job in describing that reality.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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