Politics & Government

McCarthy proposes “very conservative” 2015 county budget with 2.5-percent employee pay raise

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy proposes boosting core spending by nearly 3 percent next year, adding four positions to address mental health issues and eight more corrections deputies to reduce overtime costs at the county jail.

County workers would receive raises averaging 2.5 percent for the year – their second consecutive year with a pay raise after three years with none.

McCarthy will submit her budget to the County Council Tuesday (Sept. 23). She described it as stable and fiscally sustainable.

“We still take a very conservative approach,” she said.

The number of full-time-equivalent county positions would drop by one, from 2,977 this year to 2,976 in 2015. No one would be laid off.

The general fund budget for core government services would increase by 2.9 percent, from $273.6 million to $281.4 million.

But the total county budget, including capital spending, would drop 5.8 percent, from $985 million to $928 million. The decline is primarily due to construction tapering off for the $353 million expansion of the Chambers Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in University Place.

The employee pay raises would come in two steps: Workers would receive a 2 percent raise on Jan. 1 and another 1 percent on June 22, averaging 2.5 percent for the full year. Workers were given average raises of 1.88 percent this year.

McCarthy's budget also includes pay raises of 2.5 percent for herself, the seven County Council members, the auditor, assessor-treasurer and sheriff. That was the percentage recommended by the county's salary commission.

The increase, if approved by the County Council, would be the first raises for these elected officials since 2011.

Her budget also sets aside 3 percent pay hikes for the prosecuting attorney and Superior Court judges and a 2 percent raise for District Court judges. Judges' salaries are set by the state salary commission; county code sets the prosecutor's salary at the same amount as a Superior Court judge. They all received raises in 2013 and 2014.

The County Council will hold budget hearings with department leaders in the upcoming weeks and decide on any revisions to McCarthy’s plan.

The council is scheduled to take a final vote on next year’s budget Nov. 17.

McCarthy wants to add four jobs to address mental health issues in criminal justice and human services. She said her budget takes “a more strategic, laser view of some of the mental health challenges that have hit the county and put some resources behind that.”

The four positions – funded at a cost of nearly $395,000 – are:

•  Two mental health probation officers in district court to help offenders with mental illness reenter the community. That what’s the court requested rather than starting a mental health court.

•  One juvenile probation counselor to respond to the increasing number of youths with mental health issues.

•  A community health coordinator in the county’s Community Connections Department. That person would help integrate the county’s chemical dependency programs with mental health services overseen by private contractor Optum.

McCarthy also wants to add eight corrections deputies to reduce overtime expenses at the jail, following the recommendation of a consultant’s jail operations study.

Those eight positions would cost $664,000. The overtime budget would be reduced by an estimated $742,000 .

The corrections bureau still would need some overtime as it carries out other recommendations from the jail study, McCarthy said.

The Sheriff’s Department projects the jail will end 2014 with a deficit of $2.1 million. McCarthy’s supplemental budget in November will address any shortfall then.

She said the jail remains “our biggest, most significant challenge.”

Law enforcement staffing in the Sheriff’s Department remains flat in her budget. Even so, 80 percent of her overall budget would continue to fund public safety and criminal justice services.

Since 2009, the county has reduced the total number of full-time-equivalent positions across its workforce by 414, or 14 percent. McCarthy likes to talk about how county officials “resized government” during the recession years.

The general fund for 2015 includes an added $8.1 million in sales tax revenue. That’s about 14 percent more than was projected in this year’s budget and 4.5 percent more than current collections, said budget and finance director Gary Robinson. Increased retail sales and new construction – primarily commercial – are driving the increase, Robinson said.

Property tax revenue will increase by 2.4 percent next year, McCarthy said.

Other additions in her budget for next year include:

•  $2 million for planning to convert the County-City Building into a regional justice center. (This money would come primarily from Real Estate Excise Tax funds.) The expenditure is contingent on the County Council voting in December to build a new county administration building at the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital, as McCarthy has proposed.

•  $1 million for security and other costs related to hosting the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay Golf Course next June. But it’s expected to be cost-neutral because it would be covered by a portion of revenues from the United States Golf Association, city and state contributions, and sales tax.

•  $135,000 in the Veterans Relief Fund to help incarcerated veterans make the transition from jail to the community. This money would partly be used to provide vouchers for housing in local motels.

•  $75,000 for recruiting more aerospace jobs to Pierce County.

•  $50,000 to fund a Safe Streets position at the new Sheriff’s Department precinct in the Parkland-Spanaway area.

•  $50,000 to support efforts to start a law school at the University of Washington Tacoma. McCarthy said having a law school in the South Sound is important for the county and its criminal justice system.

Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps said that after taking inflation into account, the 2015 plan is “relatively a flat budget.” But he said the county still would be able to maintain and improve services using technology and collaboration between departments.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647