Tuesday, January 31, 2023
Jan. 31, 2023

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Clark County annual budget explained

Despite population growth, fewer people hired by government

By , Columbian political reporter

The word “hire” is used just four times in the 217-page annual budget for Clark County proposed by county Manager Shawn Henessee and approved last week by the county council.

The $518 million budget funds state mandates, public safety, transportation infrastructure and other services. Although Clark County’s population has rapidly grown, the county government has hired fewer people. Henessee said that’s not an accident.

“Whenever you add employees that is only a cost that will continue to go up,” Henessee said.

Figures provided by Clark County show that in 2009 the county had 1,125 full-time employees paid out of the general fund, the county’s largest discretionary fund. Their salaries and benefits cost $90.4 million.

By 2018, the number of full-time employees decreased to 1,067. However, the salary and benefits associated with these employees ballooned to $108.2 million. The 2019 budget anticipates 1,065 full-time employees paid for from the general fund at a cost of $111 million.

Henessee, and others, expect the problem to get worse as employees become more expensive, and the county has limited means of raising revenue. During the county council’s Tuesday evening hearing, Henessee said he would soon go line-by-line through the budget in anticipation of next year.

In the meantime, here are some takeaways from the 2019 budget.

Employees are expensive

The only times the word “hire” is mentioned in the budget includes a budget-neutral package to allow the county’s Geographic Information Systems to use temporary part-time employees to keep up with processing property transfers. Another is $20,000 to increase the stipends for two post-doctoral psychologists to serve youth in juvenile court and Evergreen Public Schools.

The last mention of any hiring was an approval of $111,500 for a software application for Public Works staff. Part of the rationale for the software is that it would eliminate the need to hire additional staff for data entry.

The general fund is budgeted for $170 million for 2019. Henessee said of that, $110 million, or 65 percent, will go toward employee salaries and benefits.

“That is by far the largest (cost),” Henessee said.

The total number of full-time county employees, including those funded by other county funds, is 1,718, according to Clark County Budget Director Emily Zwetzig. She said that costs associated with employees paid out of other county funds are similarly rising.

Henessee said a combination of factors is making county employees more expensive: The tight labor market is putting greater demand for employees and higher wages, and Washington has strong collective bargaining that locks the county into pay increases and cost-of-living adjustments.

Councilor Julie Olson said that part of the challenge is that negotiations over union contracts can result in a state arbitrator being brought in, which, she added, often doesn’t go in the county’s favor.

“We want to be a good place to work, but we’re also working with taxpayer dollars,” Olson said. “It’s a constant balance to stretch those dollars and get the best people we can in a tight workforce.”

Clark County doesn’t spend as much compared with other counties, however.

Olson provided data from the county’s budget office demonstrating that Clark County government has lower per capita expenditures than other Washington counties. Based on 2016 data, Clark County spent $691 per person — compared with $718 Pierce County spent per capita, $755 Snohomish County spent and $918 Spokane County spent.

During a Clark County Council hearing held a day before the budget approval, county Auditor Greg Kimsey said that his office has more contact with the public than any other area of county government, providing licensing, recording liens and real estate transaction, among other services. He pointed out that his office continues to offer licensing and recording five days a week while also receiving accolades.

“During my time in office, while the county’s population has increased by almost 40 percent, the number of positions in the auditor’s office has decreased by 6 percent,” said Kimsey, who was first elected in 1998.

Law and justice

About 80 percent of the general fund goes toward law and justice functions, including the sheriff’s office, jail and prosecutors, among others, Henessee said.

During a hearing before the budget was approved, Sheriff Chuck Atkins told the council he understands his office is “a big consumer of the dollars that’s available.”

“That’s just a fact of life,” he added, noting his office’s role in public safety.

Clark County Finance Director Mark Gassaway said in an email it may sound surprising that some county employees cost more than $100,000 in salary and benefits, but it shouldn’t because many of them are professionals. He said the county employs many attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, engineers and accountants. He said one entry-level police officer costs $100,000.

The offices of the auditor, assessor, treasurer, county manager, code enforcement and animal control make up the rest, he said.

County to pay $5.25 million

One significant impact on the county’s budget involves an event that happened decades ago.

Last year, Clark County and the Washington Counties Risk Pool agreed to pay out $6 million to former Vancouver police Officer Clyde Ray Spencer, who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for nearly 20 years for sexual abuse. As part of the settlement, Clark County agreed to pay out $5.25 million.

“In the end, any kind of settlement is going to come out of the general fund,” Henessee said.

That meant less money for the budget. When crafting the budget, Henessee received 156 budget requests. They included requests for software upgrades and maintenance. Of the requests, 53 weren’t funded.

At the hearing the day before the budget was approved, Clark County Assessor Peter Van Nortwick complained that his budget request of $86,450 to hire a new appraiser wasn’t approved at a time of rapid growth. Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik also mentioned his $770,000 budget request for a new case management system.

Henessee said he would look into these requests at the spring supplemental.

The county’s needs have become more expensive, he said.

His budget didn’t include funding for the replacement of the roof on the county courthouse. Four years ago, replacing it would’ve cost $300,000. Today, it would cost $1.3 million, Henessee said.

Columbian political reporter