The Pierce County Council heard a sobering message Tuesday as it began hearings on how to balance the county budget: Cut spending now and plan to cut again.
The council convened the first of several meetings devoted to figuring out how to cover what originally was expected to be an $8 million revenue shortfall. As sales tax revenues continue to slump, the shortfall has grown to an estimated $10 million to $12 million.
Budget director Pat Kenney told the council it could get worse. By June the county will have a better idea how property taxes, planning department fees and other revenue sources are shaping up for the year.
Kenney asked the council to stick with the $8 million figure as it decides how to balance the budget this month. But he said he’d be back for more cuts either for the current year or for next year.
“It could be either or it could be both,” Kenney said in an interview.
For now the council is considering County Executive Pat McCarthy’s plan to cut $5.3 million in spending and use $2.7 million in fund balances and other adjustments to cover the shortfall. The plan cuts spending in various departments but shields law enforcement from the worst cuts.
Under McCarthy’s plan, the Sheriff’s Department and corrections bureau would see cuts of less than 1 percent. Other departments – including the prosecuting attorney and superior court – would see cuts of 1.5 percent.
Still others – including the council, executive, auditor and assessor-treasurer – would see 3 percent cuts.
The next round may not involve that kind of across-the-board cuts.
Kenney said the executive’s staff is studying the budget with an eye toward eliminating entire programs that aren’t top priorities. He said the next round of cuts likely will force the council to see “what you’re willing to let go because you have to.”
Council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, underscored Kenney’s message.
“There will be more cuts later this year,” Bush said.
Bad as 2009 may be, Kenney said 2010 will be even worse.
He expects property taxes from new construction to be “way down.” And the county has been relying on its general fund balance and other one-time fixes to shore up this year’s budget. Those fixes may not be available next year.
“I think 2010 is likely to be worse than what you’re facing now,” Kenney told the council.
Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, summed up the council’s dilemma this way: “How do you downsize county government and still provide core county services?”
At Tuesday’s hearing, the council listened to the budget cutting plans for several law enforcement and criminal justice departments. Most involved leaving positions unfilled and cutting various administrative expenses.
The budget hearings will continue today and next week. The council is expected to finalize a first round of budget cuts March 31.