Clallam commissioners set budget hearings; $1.5 million in spending reductions unspecified

Jim Jones

Jim Jones

Clallam County commissioners have scheduled a pair of public hearings on the 2017 budget.

The draft budget contains a $1.5 million line item for budget adjustments or undefined spending reductions that will be used to help balance the $36.4 million general fund for day-to-day operations.

Commissioners Mike Chapman and Mark Ozias voted last week to call for two Dec. 6 hearings on the draft budget.

The hearings will begin at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 6 in the commissioners’ meeting room (160) at the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles.

Commissioner Bill Peach was absent from the Nov. 15 meeting because he was attending a Washington State Association of Counties leaders conference in Spokane.

All three commissioners discussed the draft budget in a Nov. 14 work session.

The draft budget, which is available at www.clallam.net under “Budget and Finance,” is by no means a finished product.

The board plans to adopt a final budget by Dec. 13.

The $1.5 million line item was initially proposed to estimate the amount of savings the county would achieve next year by not replacing half of the 50 full-time workers who are expected to retire in 2017, combined with typical remaining budget capacity at year’s end, officials said.

County Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis raised concerns about the line item in the Nov. 21 work session, saying it caused uncertainty among elected officials and department heads about which positions would be eliminated.

“This really scares the hell out of me,” Barkhuis said. “What does this mean? Are any of my staff positions on this chopping board list?”

Barkhuis, who said she would face personal liability if her office could not keep up with mandatory functions, told commissioners that staff reductions in her small office would be “absolutely devastating.”

“There’s also the potential for disparate impacts,” Barkhuis added. “So I have huge concerns with that line.”

Other county leaders raised similar concerns in an elected official-department head meeting Nov. 10, County Administrator Jim Jones told the board.

“Everybody has this concern, but moving forward, this was how the board, specifically Commissioner Peach, without objection from anybody else, asked the budget director and I to prepare this budget,” Jones said.

“It is a problem. At the same time, we have added 26 FTE (full-time-equivalent employees) in the general fund in the last year and a half.”

Near the end of the discussion, commissioners directed staff to remove references of personnel from the executive summary to the draft budget.

“This is an attempt to recognize that we want, and need, to have some real hands-on management with regard to handling retirements and staff turnover because that is an opportunity to save money,” Ozias said.

“But as Selinda had pointed out, and as we’ve certainly heard from department heads last Thursday, this creates a lot of uncertainty.”

Most of the departmental spending requests were not included in the draft budget, which was balanced by the $1.5 million line item and the use of $276,525 in reserves.

A $276,525 draw on reserves would leave about $10.3 million in the general fund reserve, most of which is restricted for payroll, emergencies and other specific purposes.

Ozias suggested that the new board establish a set of budget priorities early next year, including a minimum balance for the general fund.

Commissioner-elect Randy Johnson will replace longtime County Commissioner Mike Chapman, who was elected to the state Legislature, at the end of this year.

“We’re entering next year with a lot of challenges,” Ozias said. “Whether the budget we adopt this year has this $1.5 million line item or not, our situation remains the same. We have a lot of management to do and some tough choices to make moving forward.”

Chapman credited Barkhuis for protecting taxpayer dollars. He tried to assuage the second-term treasurer’s concerns about staff reductions.

“I highly doubt that the board of commissioners is going to cut a staff person out of the treasurer’s office,” Chapman said.

“I’ll just put it on the record, you guys: It’s not going to work. You can’t cut a five-person department 20 percent. There are better ways to save.”

Ozias agreed.

“I would never advocate for a situation where you, or any other elected official, didn’t have the necessary dual controls and didn’t have the basic staff necessary to provide your function,” Ozias said, “particularly one where what you’re managing is so fundamental to our ability to operate and where your liability is so unusually high compared to many others.”

Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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