The Pierce County executive would eliminate nearly 50 jobs next year, including 14 vacant law enforcement positions. And the budget for nearly every county department would be reduced, with cuts ranging from less than 1 percent to nearly 10 percent.
County Executive Pat McCarthy is proposing what she calls a “stable and sustainable” budget package of $884 million for 2013. The general fund budget for core government services would drop by 0.6 percent – or $1.6 million – to $274 million. It would allow for a 1 percent salary increase for employees.
McCarthy delivered her budget to the Pierce County Council on Friday. The council will hold hearings and approve a final spending plan in November.
While the sheriff’s department would lose jobs in both corrections and law enforcement, McCarthy’s budget still focuses on preserving public safety and legal-judicial services. Those departments account for 78.7 percent of the general fund.
Her budget would assume a 1.6 percent increase in property tax revenue and a 4 percent drop in sales tax revenue primarily due to a decline in construction.
McCarthy’s budget would eliminate 49 positions, including 33 from the general fund. By absorbing vacancies, less than half the job cuts would result in layoffs, said county budget and finance director Gary Robinson.
For this year’s budget, 40 positions were eliminated, including 22 from the general fund, Robinson said.
McCarthy said the Sheriff’s Department has been shielded from budget cuts the past four years.
“We’ve really run out of options,” she said.
The first-term executive, who’s running for re-election in November, said the cuts won’t hurt the current level of sheriff’s services. Her budget calls for cutting 15 positions in law enforcement, 14 of them now vacant.
“Our priority is always keeping our communities safe across the county and making sure they’re strong and they’re viable and they’re livable,” McCarthy said.
But Sheriff Paul Pastor urged caution.
“I understand that the county is in difficult financial shape,” he said in a brief interview Friday. “At the same time, I think we need to be very, very, very careful about cutting law enforcement positions. We are already down multiple positions over the past three years.”
Pastor, who was reached while out of state, declined further comment.
To cope with McCarthy’s planned cut, the Sheriff’s Department proposes realigning staff. Two gang deputies would be moved back to patrol, Undersheriff Eileen Bisson said in an email to McCarthy.
The five-member community support team – which deals with “pesky, nagging problems” such as panhandlers at exit ramps and homeless camps – would be shut down and moved to patrol, Bisson said.
By shifting personnel, Bisson said, the department would start 2013 fully staffed in patrol.
The corrections bureau at the Pierce County Jail would lose nine positions, likely all from vacancies.
The jail is looking at a funding hit next year from the state and cities such as Tacoma that contract for jail space.
Pastor reported to McCarthy that governments who contract with the jail plan to use fewer jail beds next year. The result: $1 million less in revenue in 2013.
Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps said the county’s been told cities are trying to reduce their use of the jail by changing standards for who they book versus who they fine and release.
Spending on corrections in 2013 includes $724,000 for jail debt service not in this year’s general fund.
CHANGE FROM PAST
The County Council has protected law enforcement from cuts in the past, but some members in recent months have voiced concern over the number of vacancies Pastor has carried in his department.
The sheriff has said it’s challenging to fill jobs because it takes months to recruit, hire and train deputies.
Robinson said spending on law enforcement has increased every year from 2005 through this year.
McCarthy proposed a 1 percent cut in law enforcement for 2012, but the council increased the budget.
McCarthy said she doesn’t know whether council members will resist cutting law enforcement openings again.
If they do, “there will have to be cuts in other places in the budget,” she said.
At first blush, Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald said Friday she would be comfortable with eliminating vacant law enforcement positions because those cuts won’t hurt current levels of service.
“There really would be no cut in personnel as I know of today,” said McDonald, R-Puyallup. “At the council, we are committed to keeping public safety.”
PRAISE FOR LEADERS
McCarthy said it’s good news that Pierce County residents are “not seeing these huge draconian cuts” compared with some other governments and businesses.
She said county leaders have made “strategic, measured cuts over the course of the last four years.”
That period of budget slicing started in 2009, when the county cut 97 positions as the recession started eroding tax revenues. It escalated in 2010, when the county eliminated services at 16 parks and cut 319 more positions.
Her 2013 budget would fund 2,973 full-time-equivalent employees. That’s 514 fewer – or a nearly 15 percent reduction – compared with 2008.
The total budget of $884 million is 5 percent more than this year. Robinson said the nearly $45 million increase is due primarily to a major capital project – expansion of the county’s Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in University Place.
McCarthy’s budget does call for some rate increases, including a 5 percent hike in the annual surface water management fee. Most fees for Planning and Land Services – including building permits – would increase from 3 to 15 percent.
Pierce County is the state’s second-largest county in Washington with a population of 808,200, including 375,955 in the unincorporated area.
PAY RAISE PROTECTED
McCarthy’s 2013 budget does include money for a 1 percent salary increase for county employees. It also includes money to pay the first 5 percent of increases in health care premiums.
For 2012, union employees agreed to go without a cost-of-living adjustment for the first time since the 1980s. The county agreed to pay the first 10 percent of increases in health care premiums.
“A year ago, I asked the employees to give us a one year with zero COLA and then let’s come back to the bargaining table and see if there is any capacity,” McCarthy said. “So we put a placeholder in there for a minor amount.”
The current regional Consumer Price Index is 2.7 percent.
McCarthy said she couldn’t comment on whether she’s seeking a 1 percent raise because of labor negotiations now under way. None of the county’s 23 bargaining units has yet reached an agreement for next year.