Support for parks, senior services and 4-H eliminated in preliminary 2010 budget proposal

The casualty list continues to grow as the San Juan County Council readies for a second wave of cuts to this year’s budget and preparations are underway to craft an even more austere financial plan for 2010.

On Wednesday, the council set the stage for trimming this year’s operating budget by an additional $117,000 and, perhaps more profoundly, began weighing its options for plugging an anticipated shortfall of roughly $720,000 that appears to be in store for the coming year.

As of today, those options are few, according to Administrator Pete Rose.

“We’re squeezing the organization to the point that I think it’s squealing,” he said.

Without any new sources of revenue, Rose said decisions will prove difficult in determining how to offset an annual 5 percent increase in expenses which the county typically incurs and to produce a balanced budget for the year ahead. About a dozen county jobs were eliminated as the result of the first-phase budget cut, totaling $822,000 and which the council endorsed July 1, and another two positions — a full-time clerk in superior court and a part-time departmental assistant in public health’s Orcas Island office, are slated to be jettisoned in the Phase 2 reduction.

The Phase 2 cuts will go into effect pending a decision by the council at a Aug. 11 public hearing, at which time council members will also decide whether to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask for voter-approval on a property-tax increase as a means of supplementing county coffers. The council on Wednesday debated the merits of a 10-15-cent hike, which, at 10 cents, would raise roughly $800,000 and add $45 onto the annual property-tax bill of a $450,000 home.

Councilman Richard Fralick, Orcas West, said the local electorate deserves a chance to weigh in on the fate of county services before the council must decide where and how deep to cut.

“Asking the voters for more money is something I find difficult to do from a personal perspective,” Fralick said. “The reason I entertain it is because I’ve had a number of my constituents come to me and say ‘the types of things that are happening to the county is producing a county government that is not the kind of county government we want … give us an opportunity to tell you we’re happy with it or give us an opportunity to step up to the plate and offer more.”

Rose said core services will be pitted against discretionary programs as most revenue sources that feed the general fund, which pays for bulk of the county’s day-to-day expenses, including payroll, are expected to remain in decline or flat-lined for the remainder of this year, and possibly into the next. The result, according to a proposed, though preliminary, 2010 general fund budget, is elimination of nearly all discretionary spending, such as the long-standing support for senior services, parks and WSU’s Extension programs, like 4-H, beginning next year.

Before unveiling the 2010 general fund proposal, Rose echoed an earlier cautionary note given to the council when the first round of budget cuts were introduced.

“I said that process would take you places you did not think you would go,” he said. “I think we need to go even farther.”

According to Auditor Milene Henley, the Phase 2 budget cut will leave the general fund, which is forecasted to end this year with $1.2 million in reserve, about $60,000 in the red even with the elimination of two jobs and a $22,500 increase in revenue, which district court and the auditor office are together are expected to generate. Henley recommended the council consider a 3-day furlough for all courthouse and non-union employees, or shifting money from the road fund, to cover the $60,000 shortfall.

Henley also noted that the general fund would need an infusion of roughly $1.2 million to restore those jobs that already have been cut, and to avoid eliminating positions and programs, such as the $8,000 annual contribution to the Islands’ Oil Spill Association, which are targeted in the preliminary 2010 budget.