Pierce County might cut more than half a million dollars in funding for community groups and projects this week as it struggles to balance its budget.
The money – doled out by the county executive and the county council – helps pay for everything from community festivals and neighborhood watch programs to health clinics and Little League batting cages.
In good times, elected officials see the spending as a way to support favorite causes and community needs that otherwise might be overlooked. But that spending – more than $2 million in this year’s budget – has become a target as the county cuts costs to cover an $8 million-and-growing revenue shortfall.
“Everything has to be put on the table,” said County Executive Pat McCarthy, who proposed the cuts. “Given our economic constraints, our focus has to be on the priorities of government.”
The spending on community groups and projects is lumped in a budget designation called “miscellaneous current expense.” It’s a catch-all category for spending that doesn’t fit into particular department budgets.
It includes some county obligations like unemployment compensation and severance reserves, as well as some services like the cost of broadcasting county programming on cable television.
About $2 million of the $4.8 million budgeted under miscellaneous current expense this year is for discretionary spending requested by former County Executive John Ladenburg and County Council members.
Records show Ladenburg requested $933,160 of the discretionary spending, while the seven council members together requested about $1.1 million.
The money pays for a variety of programs.
Some of it benefits local cultural institutions like the Asian Pacific Cultural Center, the Foss Waterway Seaport and the Tacoma Little Theatre, each budgeted to get $10,000. Community events from the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration ($750) to the Daffodil Festival ($11,850) also benefit.
Council members sometimes target specific needs in their districts. Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, requested $57,942 for streetlights in Graham, Elk Plain, Frederickson and Spanaway.
“We’ve got children at risk out here walking to and from school in the dark or waiting for a bus at an unlighted intersection,” Bush said.
Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, requested $30,500 for public works projects in the city’s West End, plus money for other city projects. He said the money is “a small way to try to ensure people in incorporated cities get something for their (county) tax dollars.”
Spending on community groups and projects included under “miscellaneous current expense” accounts for less than 1 percent of the county’s $289 million general fund budget. Nonetheless, it has come under scrutiny as the county cuts funding for other services.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer criticized the spending at a time when law enforcement budgets are taking a hit. He noted that his department has had to postpone hiring six new sheriff’s deputies.
“Maybe this money for arts and some of this other stuff needs to take a break for a couple years,” Troyer said.
Farrell said it’s not that simple. Most of the community projects are one-time expenditures, he said. Paying for sheriff’s deputies is an ongoing expense.
Bush said the community projects often improve public safety, economic development or quality of life.
Nonetheless, the council has cut spending on outside groups and projects as it tightens the county budget.
Last year the county budgeted $6.1 million for “miscellaneous current expense.” This year’s budget includes $4.8 million. The council approved no new money for its own discretionary spending this year, though it included unspent money from 2008 in this year’s budget.
More cuts are coming. On Tuesday the council will consider an amended 2009 budget that cuts about $525,000 in spending on outside groups and projects.
Among the cuts: $48,100 from arts and cultural services, $28,125 from senior centers and $19,000 from Bush’s requested streetlights.
Community Health Care, a nonprofit group that provides medical care for low-income people, will take the biggest hit. It will lose $100,000 of the $150,000 it was to receive this year.
The money was to help pay for a new $11.1 million medical clinic at Tacoma’s Salishan housing development.
“This will just mean we’ll have $100,000 more that we’ll have to raise (elsewhere),” said David Flentge, Community Health Care’s president. He hopes other pledges don’t fall through.
Safe Streets, a nonprofit that helps communities fight crime, will lose nearly $28,000 in county funding. That’s in addition to the $79,000 hit the group took when the county reduced spending from 2008.
Executive director Priscilla Lisicich said the group already has cut one of two people who helped organize neighborhood watch and other programs in unincorporated East Pierce County. She said the latest budget cut might mean more service cuts.
County Executive McCarthy said such programs serve many people. But when law enforcement and other departments are trimming their budgets, she said community programs “can’t be immune to the budget cuts we have to make.”
And more cuts are likely. Tuesday’s spending cuts will help cover an $8 million revenue shortfall. But the estimated shortfall already has grown to $10 million to $12 million.
Farrell said money for community projects that hasn’t been spent by June 30 likely will be taken away.
McCarthy’s message is even grimmer.
“There may not be any funding for next year,” she said.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341