More County Budget E-Barbs

In case you're still following the un-ending fight over the rising King County budget deficit (now projected at over $86 million), the latest is an e-mail from County Budget Director Bob Cowan responding to Sheriff Sue Rahr's previous note to staff. An excerpt:

The county is not well served if information being provided to the public about the deficit and potential reductions is not factually correct or is misleading. It damages the trust of the public in county government and does not advance the important effort we as a county need to undertake with the State legislature to provide long term solutions to our structural budget problems.

Full text below the jump.

Dear Sheriff Rahr,

Yesterday, I received a copy of the e-mail you sent to your staff regarding the recent announcement of an increase in the projected General Fund deficit in 2009. As to the specifics in your communication, as with others I have seen from your office, I am concerned that it presents some misleading and incorrect information. I would like to take this opportunity to provide you with the correct information and clarification as I do not believe the dialogue over the County budget situation is helped by the presentation of incorrect information.

Statement from your e-mail: On Friday, Executive Ron Sims announced the King County budget deficit for 2009 is no longer $60 million, as announced in June. The deficit has now ballooned to $86.5 million.

Clarification: In June, the announced budget deficit was $68 million. Further, county agencies, including the Sheriff's Office, have received informal updates regarding the impact of the worsening economy on the General Fund deficit over the course of June and July, including the fact that COLA was showing upward trend to 5.1% in the middle of July. The impact of the deterioration in the economy on the General Fund deficit was officially compiled and released this past Monday, as you acknowledge in your e-mail.

Statement from your e-mail: On Monday, I was stunned to learn that the impact of the new projections on the Sheriff’s Office would be an additional $2.5 million in cuts for next year’s budget, on top of the $7.5 million we’ve already been directed to cut.

Clarification: All General Fund agencies and agencies receiving General Fund support, including the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, the Department of Community and Human Services, the Department of Judicial Administration, District Court, Jail Health Services, Office of Public Defense, Parks, Prosecuting Attorney's Office, Public Health-Seattle and King County, and Superior Court, were asked to identify additional reductions to their budgets in order to bring the 2009 General Fund budget into balance, as required by law. These additional reductions were allocated on a proportionate basis, with each General Fund-dependent agency assigned an additional reduction amount that is just over 34% greater than what had previously been assigned.

Statement from your e-mail: When I submitted my budget proposal to Executive Sims in July, it included several proposals to save money and therefore save jobs. I proposed cutting over $725,000 from what we pay to other County departments, including Motor Pool, Information Technology, Human Resources, Finance, Building Facilities, and so on.

Fact: All agencies that provide support services to other county agencies, such as those mentioned in your e-mail, have been asked to reduce their budgets by 5 percent to 8 percent as part of the effort to address the unprecedented deficit facing the General Fund. These reductions are on top of the reduced growth rates that had been assumed for these budgets when we prepared the County’s Proposed Status Quo budget, which forms the basis upon which the 2009 budgets are developed. We are seeing tremendous creativity on the part of these agencies to reduce costs and plan on integrating many of these proposals as part of the 2009 Executive Proposed Budget. These reductions will benefit every agency in the county, including the Sheriff’s Office.

Statement from your e-mail: I offered proposals that would save a considerable amount of money by reducing the size of our pool and returning cars we do not need. I proposed cutting $750,000 from Blue Ribbon Panel reforms. I proposed increasing fees, correcting accounting errors made by the Budget Office, charging AFIS for some overhead functions we provide, and adding revenue as a result of taking over fire investigations.

Fact: The Office of Management and Budget has accepted the Sherriff's Office's proposal to reduce the size of its motor pool and is working actively with the Fleet Division to facilitate the return of the vehicles and to verify the amount of savings the return will generate.

The $750,000 for the Blue Ribbon Panel was a reserve in the General Fund that had previously been released to help balance the 2008 budget. Therefore, this proposal does not generate savings to help balance the 2009 budget and it is, therefore, not appropriate for the Sheriff's Office to claim it towards its target reduction.

OMB has approved the increase of fees proposed by the Sheriff's Office.

The accounting errors referenced in this communication and others were submitted to OMB by the Sheriff’s Office in the 2008 budget request. OMB staff identified the error earlier this year and brought it to the attention of the Sheriff’s Office. It is not appropriate for the Sheriff’s Office to claim that an error made by Sheriff’s Office constitutes a cost-savings that helps address the General Fund deficit. Moreover, it is inappropriate to disparage the work of OMB when the error originated in the Sheriff’s Office.

OMB has agreed that charging AFIS for legitimate overhead functions provided by the Sheriff's Office is an appropriate budget change and is working to finalize the amount that will be charged.

Because the revenue associated with fire investigations is already being received by the General Fund it does not offset the deficit.

Statement from your e-mail: On Tuesday, I learned that virtually all of my proposed ideas for budget savings outlined above have been rejected by the budget office. I now have to identify an alternative 2 million dollars in cuts. That’s right…on top of the additional 2.5 million in cuts I got yesterday.

Fact: The Office of Management and Budget has approved 19 of the 28 items in the July 7 Sheriff's Office budget submittal, including those specific items discussed in the ‘facts’ above. An additional three items are pending further review by OMB. Six items have not been approved, including:

$750,000 for the Blue Ribbon Panel – This was a reserve in the adopted 2008 General Fund Budget that was never a part of the Sheriff’s Office initial budget and had previously been released to help balance the 2008 budget. Therefore, this proposal does not generate savings to help balance the 2009 budget and it is not appropriate for the Sheriff's Office to claim it towards its target reduction.

Reduction in the charges from other county agencies - All agencies that provide support services to other county agencies, such as those mentioned in your e-mail, have been asked to reduce their budgets by 5 percent to 8 percent as part of the effort to address the unprecedented deficit facing the General Fund. These reductions are on top of the reduced growth rates that had been assumed for these budgets when we prepared the County’s Proposed Status Quo budget, which forms the basis upon which the 2009 budgets are developed.

Revenue error - It is not appropriate for the Sheriff’s Office to claim that an error made by the Sheriff’s Office constitutes a cost-savings that helps address the General Fund deficit.

Washington State DOC revenue – This is not new revenue to the General Fund and does not help reduce the deficit.

Fire Investigations revenue – This is not new revenue to the General Fund and does not help reduce the deficit.

$2 million reduction for unidentified positions – Without seeing the detail of this proposal, OMB cannot indicate whether this proposal is feasible. OMB has asked repeatedly for more information regarding this request, but none has been forthcoming from the Sheriff’s Office.

Statement from your e-mail: There is nothing left to cut. I have no choice but to eliminate more jobs.

Fact: Unfortunately, an $86 million deficit will require all agencies receiving General Fund support to make difficult reductions such as those facing the Sheriff's Office. In fact, agencies such as the Department of Public Health, Parks, and the Department of Community and Human Services have been asked to make cuts that are much deeper on a percentage basis than those reductions being sought from the Sheriff’s Office and other parts of the criminal justice system.

Statement from your e-mail: The only good news I have to report is that most of these budget reductions will not directly affect our contracts. Hopefully most of the commissioned positions cut can be moved to our contract cities, Metro Transit, and Sound Transit as they add positions for 2009. However, that may not be the case if Metro is forced to reduce their projected new hires for 2009.

Fact: The target reductions assigned to the Sheriff’s Office, and all other agencies with similar contractual relationships, excluded from the outset all budgetary requirements associated with providing contract services. Therefore, contract services provided to other jurisdictions were never in jeopardy as a result of the county’s budget situation. We applaud the Sheriff's Office for seeking opportunities to reassign officers whose jobs may be in jeopardy as a result of the General Fund deficit to contract functions, which allows the county to continue providing employment for these officers.

It is premature for the Sheriff’s Office to conclude that Metro Transit may reduce its projected new hires for 2009. Yes, Metro faces a $70 million deficit over the 2008-2009 biennium driven by the skyrocketing cost of fuel and the simultaneous decline in sales tax revenue, the major funding source for Metro operations. But no decisions have been made about how Metro will address its funding challenges. Currently, Metro is exploring fare increase options and other changes to its budget. The Metro deficit illustrates that the economic pressures that have driven the General Fund deficit to unprecedented levels are being felt across the county and, indeed, across the state and the nation. Like the county’s General Fund agencies, Metro is looking to identify viable changes to allow it to address its financial challenges.

The Office of Management and Budget recognizes that the reductions we have asked every General Fund supported agency to identify are painful. 2009 presents challenges to all of us which are unprecedented in magnitude. In an environment with a projected deficit of over $86 million every agency must be asked to identify potential reductions. The issue before us is how we can solve an $86 million problem. The work done by your office and every other county agency in developing potential budget reductions and the work of my staff and the Executive in reviewing those ideas is only a part of how we address the much larger issue of a structural imbalance between revenue growth and expenditure growth for every county in the state. As much as we all dislike that we face an $86 million deficit, the fact of the matter is that we must produce a balanced budget and create a coordinated approach to advocate to Olympia for a long term solution that will address the core problem. We sincerely hope you will be a partner in this effort.

The county is not well served if information being provided to the public about the deficit and potential reductions is not factually correct or is misleading. It damages the trust of the public in county government and does not advance the important effort we as a county need to undertake with the State legislature to provide long term solutions to our structural budget problems. I would hope we can carry on an informed dialogue with the Sheriff’s Office as we prepare the Executive’s Proposed 2009 Budget in this most difficult time.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss these issues further.

Sincerely,

Bob Cowan

 
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