MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners approved a $26.26 million operating budget during a special meeting on Dec. 19. The approved budget includes two new corrections officers as well as permission to fill vacant positions in District Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the facilities division.
The operating budget dives into reserves by about $850,000, but is budgeted to leave about $5.4 million by the end of 2014. Budget Director Brenda Sherman says that the cash reserves could end up higher depending on how timber harvests do next year as well as sales tax and property tax revenue. Sherman said she wanted to budget more on the cautious side.
About 71 percent of the operating budget funds salaries of county employees. Several county contracts are still not complete and would need to be funded using reserve funds in supplemental budgets next year.
The entire budget also includes $83.6 million in miscellaneous funds, including $12.6 million in Public Health funds as well as money devoted to roads and the county forest.
Sheriff Rick Scott requested and received two new corrections officers. Part of the salary for the corrections positions will come out of litter funds and part will come out of the county’s substance abuse sales tax funds.
Members of the Corrections staff had objected to their current staff levels, which County Commission Chairman Frank Gordon points out has been below the state’s standards. The county has been running an average of 6.9 inmates to every one corrections officer, while the standard is closed to 4 to 1 or 3 to 1.
The situation has been so bad that the county often has 40 or so beds it simply doesn’t fill at the county jail because there hasn’t been the staff to oversee them.
“I wonder how the public would feel to know that we have a revolving door in the jail because before these people are even done serving their sentences their back out on the street because we don’t have room for them?” Gordon said.
Scott notes the county has more than 4,000 District Court warrants that are not being served and doesn’t get priority unless it’s a Domestic Violence warrant.
“Even district court commitments, we’re taking those commitments by appointment,” Scott said. “it’s like scheduling room in the inn.”
The county commissioners budgeted extra funds for the two corrections staff, as well as paying out the accrued vacation time of four Sheriff’s deputies that are slated to retire next year. There will also be the extra expenses of training new officers.
“Next year is going to be a big training year for us,” Scott said.
District Court Judge Steve Brown had also requested and received to fill a vacant clerk’s position. Brown said without the position, he would have needed to close one of the offices for an extended period of time.
And the commissioners approved to hire a new facilities worker bringing the staff up to four people. Public Services Director Kevin Varness said that the county has three workers currently with one out on medical leave.
“Maintaining and doing the custodial work for the entire county with just two people is not possible,” Varness said.
County Commissioner Wes Cormier said that half of the cost of the position is supposed to come from other funds, “And I’m going to hold him to that.”
The commissioners also approved hiring a new deputy prosecutor position, although the office is still down one prosecutor since former Prosecutor Stew Menefee retired and they never filled his position.
Although the budget might have been approved, Gordon points out that the revenue numbers are still in flux because of incomplete figures turned over by the Assessor’s Office.
Auditor Vern Spatz told the commissioners at this point, the county should have at least had firm expenditure numbers to hand out to department heads so they can see the budgets proposed compared to what department heads requested. Spatz pointed out that none of that had been done.
County Commissioner Herb Welch questioned why he and his fellow commissioners couldn’t delay approving the budget until they meet again on Dec. 30.
“We should get input from the departments,” Welch said. “That’s been an issue that has come up to bite us in the past.”
Commissioner Gordon questioned whether county staff had enough time to process any changes requested by department heads. The budget needed to be approved by the end of the year.
Ultimately, Cormier pointed out if any changes do need to be made, it can be done early next year. He apologized to Spatz.
“In a way you shouldn’t apologize because a lot of the problems are not our fault,” Gordon said. “We’re not getting numbers from a different office entity, which I won’t name, so it’s nice for you to be willing to take blame but I don’t think there’s any blame you need to take.”