Legislators asked to ‘do no harm’

Area’s lobbyist worried cities may bear more state cuts

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photoMark Brown

Counties brace for cuts to their social services

As cities like Vancouver struggle with the approaching mandates, counties are preparing for cuts to their social service programs.

Adriana Prata, with the Clark County budget office, said state cuts cause both direct and indirect problems to the community.

“Every time they do cuts to those programs such as social services, mental health, substance abuse, we have an indirect impact on law enforcement services,” as drug and alcohol use goes up and courts lose funding, it pushes problems to the city’s street corners, Prata said.

“Some of those services we still need to provide whether or not the state helps us.”

— Estelle Gwinn

OLYMPIA — News of possible additional cuts to the state budget has cities like Vancouver worried the state will shift more costs to local governments.

With the threat of a special legislative session, Vancouver has an overriding message to send: Do no harm.

Mark Brown, who has been a municipal lobbyist for Southwest Washington for the past 10 years, said he is fearful that state shared revenues will be at risk and the Legislature will push more services down to the local level without providing the resources to do them.

“That would be the worst-case scenario for us,” Brown said. “Taking money away and then being asked to do more. We just can’t let that happen. I guess I would say I’m cautiously optimistic we can avoid that, but it’s not going to be easy.”

A large part of the city’s plan for the Legislature is defensive, due to further cuts in the state budget. State money that cities must share took a small hit this year, about 3.4 percent. However, Brown said the general fund was reduced about $4.5 billion overall.

“If they have to whack off another billion plus, out of the general fund … then every program is on the chopping block,” Brown said. In a letter to state employees this month, the governor asked agencies to prepare for up to a 10 percent cut. “So ‘do no harm’ is kind of a major theme for us in 2011, and it will absolutely be our primary focus in 2012. Don’t tamper with state shared revenues, don’t give us any unfunded mandates … don’t take away any existing authority that we have.”

Natasha Ramras, the budget and planning manager for Vancouver, said they are keeping an eye on several things that could affect the city, including funding for transportation.

“Transportation is one of those areas where it’s very expensive to do projects and there isn’t really available revenue,” Ramras said.

Mandates that the state does not pay for are pushed on the city almost every year, Ramras said. For example, a couple years ago the state determined fire hydrants were not a utility cost but a general government cost.

“That cost out of the general fund $1.2 million per year that we didn’t have before,” Ramras said.

Another similar recommendation working through the system is that cities should not be given lower rates for utilities compared to the private sector, though they have historically received reduced rates.

‘Sympathetic crowd’

The city, unlike the county, does not receive much state funding to provide social services such as mental health. Though when the state cuts the funding for those services, cities feel the impact.

“For example, the state is looking at releasing prisoners early and they go back to the same cycle of committing crimes,” Ramras said. “Then the city is involved in investigating those crimes and they go through our systems again in the area.

“They end up on the street and going through the justice system, which is not the proper system for them. We’re more likely to see more of those types of situations,” Ramras said.

However, Brown said Southwest Washington legislators thus far have had a pattern of protecting local government so far.

“Our local legislators … understand that cities and counties are hurting too and they don’t want to impose any more mandates. It’s a pretty sympathetic crowd,” Brown said.

Regulations delayed

This year, legislators for Southwest Washington helped pass House Bill 1478, which reduced costs for cities and counties by delaying a number of regulations and providing extra flexibility with existing demands. One such law would have required every agency in the state to do a complete vehicle fleet transition from gasoline to alternative fuels by 2015.

“It was pushed back to 2018 but it didn’t go away, it’s still out there,” Ramras said. “We know the mandate is going to be there in 2018 and we’re buying these vehicles now that will last 10 years, so we really need to start complying now.”

Before Brown was a lobbyist for Vancouver he spent six years as the city’s first governmental relations director. He now represents Ridgefield, Longview, Battle Ground and Lacey in addition to Vancouver. Over the years he has seen a number of programs put into place that have helped the city with projects, including the Vancouver Convention Center and waterfront development in downtown Vancouver.

“Now those were sort of the good old days, until this current cycle we’re in,” Brown said. “(Legislators) have a thankless job in this current environment. Mostly what they have to do now is say no to people. None of us wants to see cuts in higher education, cuts in K-12, other cuts in social programs and all those things have had to happen in the last couple years and we’ll be right back at it in 2012.”