The proposed Whatcom County budget for 2013-14 reins in expenses as the county waits for revenues to catch up with a slowly recovering economy.
The budget, written by Executive Jack Louws and his staff, was released Monday, Oct. 15, and will be introduced to the council in daylong sessions beginning at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. Sessions will be held in council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.
Most if not all of the county's revenue sources have been trending upward the past six months, especially sales tax, Louws said.
"It gives me a little bit of hope that things are going to continue to get better," he said.
Still, Louws submitted a budget he called "status quo" because government lags behind the private sector in economic recoveries, he said.
The general fund budget will shrink over each of the next two years, if the council approves it in its current form. Spending on county services covered by the fund, including law enforcement, courts, the health department and building permits, will go from $78.4 million this year to $75.5 million in 2014.
The county's debt is relatively low at about $3 million, which puts it in a good position for large investments in the near future - in particular a new jail, Louws said. His budget transfers $2 million into the jail fund in 2013-14 for construction. The budget also includes funding for a jail planner.
To keep costs down, the executive followed the council's direction by freezing health benefit costs and withholding cost-of-living raises.
County management and union employees must decide how to handle the benefit freeze, Louws said. Options include going with a less expensive provider, reducing benefits and asking for an employee contribution.
Over the next two years, the executive proposes reducing staff by the equivalent of 3.6 full-time positions, mostly by not replacing employees who leave voluntarily. A drug and alcohol assessment employee in district court, amounting to less than one full-time position, will be laid off in March, Louws said.
The county government's workforce has shrunk by 150 employees since 2008, about one third of those through layoffs.
Louws proposes reducing the number of furlough days, or unpaid days off for employees, from 10 this year to six each in 2013 and 2014. He wants to eventually eliminate furloughs.
A public hearing on the budget and final approval by the council are both scheduled for Nov. 20.
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