In a split vote Thursday, Thurston County commissioners removed the Sheriff's Office from an across-the-board 2 percent budget cut, the only county department to survive the directive.
The universal cut is a strategy the board is using to stave off projected budget woes due to COVID-19. The decision came after Commissioner Gary Edwards equated including the office in the cuts to "defunding law enforcement."
Although many of the commissioners' conversations around budget cuts have been cooperative, and many of its decisions unanimous, the vote is the latest example of tension among the commissioners when it comes to the Sheriff's Office.
The board's preliminary decision on Thursday will be part of a budget amendment, which is subject to a public hearing next month.
A bleak financial outlook
Like other local governments, the county is facing uncertain budget projections with hits predicted to revenue sources, such as sales and property taxes, in light of COVID-19 and shutdowns meant to slow its spread.
Projections presented by Assistant County Manager Robin Campbell, who also serves as the county's budget director, feature a possible $5.5 million drop in revenue for the county's General Fund this year, a $4.2 million drop in 2021 and a $3.6 million drop in 2022.
The projections are based on what the county experienced during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, but if it happened all at once. The commissioners are in a challenging position that requires them to take action without knowing what this recession will truly look like, says Campbell, who has recommended commissioners find a way to cut $5 million in spending from the county's General Fund this year.
"We're all very hopeful, but you can't balance a budget on hope," Campbell said in a phone interview with The Olympian in early May. "So, we have to prepare for the worst."
As commissioners deliberate ways to do so, time passes and that $5 million becomes a higher percentage of the county's $108.8 million in planned spending for 2020.
'Defunding law enforcement' or applying equal treatment?
Commissioners enacted over $3.9 million in budget reductions in May by taking several actions, including initiating a hiring freeze and eliminating current job vacancies aside from positions in offices that operate 24/7, such as juvenile detention, the Sheriff's Office, and the Coroner's Office.
About $1 million in savings was supposed to come from a 2 percent budget cut across county offices and departments. The offices and departments were asked to submit proposals for how they would meet that target, and commissioners went through the list during a four-hour meeting Thursday.
The County Clerk and Prosecutor did not submit plans. Instead, they sent letters to the board expressing concern over the magnitude of the cut when combined with the elimination of job vacancies, Campbell said -- both offices were disproportionately impacted by the vacancies elimination.
A 2 percent cut to their budgets is still part of the plan, according to Campbell, and commissioners responded by taking off a grant-funded position from the vacancy list in the Clerk's Office and allowing the Clerk to exempt another remaining position, though they didn't make the same concession for the Prosecutor.
The Sheriff's Office proposed it would hold off on filling two vacancies in law enforcement and two vacancies in corrections to achieve savings in each for this year before hiring for the positions in 2021, though it didn't amount to a full 2 percent because the office calculated its own target.
The Sheriff's Office's budget accounts for 37 percent of the county's General Fund spending.
Commissioner Gary Edwards, a former Thurston County Sheriff for two decades, argued that including the office in the cut "sends the wrong message."
Edwards alluded to activists' calls to "defund" law enforcement, often advocating for that money to be reinvested in community services while some call for dismantling the entire police system.
"I think that we are in a situation, we are in a new reality and I don't think we ought to be making any reductions to the law enforcement activities right now," Edwards said. "We need to defend our law enforcement, not defund our law enforcement..."
Commissioner John Hutchings, who worked as an Olympia police officer before becoming Chief of Police in Tenino, initially disagreed with Edwards, saying the Sheriff is a professional and that the commission wouldn't be "defunding" his department.
But he changed his mind by the time commissioners cast their vote to remove the Sheriff's Office from the cuts, which came out 2-1, with Hutchings ultimately saying "all things are not equal" and that he didn't want to "defund or reduce the budget for the Sheriff's Office in any way, shape or form, either."
Hutchings told The Olympian Saturday his position was solidified when, during discussion, the board learned the vacancies were two deputies and two corrections officers, and that he could not "do that to the men and women who are now working with two fewer resources to back them up," or to the citizens "who expect and demand safety."
The Olympian has previously reported that Thurston County ranks 37th out of Washington's 39 counties for its ratio of deputies per capita, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
The one no vote was Commissioner Tye Menser, who said that while the Sheriff's Office was exempt from other budget-cutting strategies, such as vacancy elimination, due to the nature of their work, this particular strategy was meant to be applied evenly across departments.
This is about cutting costs due to COVID-19 impacts, he said.
"I just have to take exception to any notion that a 2 percent across-the-board cut is defunding law enforcement," Menser said. "...That's a separate policy issue that's come up with the recent and tragic events -- nothing to do with this. I hope nobody would ever interpret my position on this as an attempt to defund law enforcement. That's a different conversation that we could have, but it's not this conversation."
Menser told The Olympian that cost-cutting burdens, such as pay cuts and furloughs, will now be "deeper and heavier" for other departments, such as Public Health, the Prosecuting Attorney's Office, and Public Defense.
He said he'd like to see the board choose strategies that spread the pain evenly.
"I can't fault the Sheriff for any of that," Menser said. "It's not his fault that the board wants to give him favored status...We have every right to hold every department to the policies and treat everyone the same, that's not on him. That's on my seatmates."
When it came time to consider the 2 percent cut to the Public Health and Social Services budget Thursday, Menser resurrected the discussion.
"In an effort to try to understand my seatmates' thinking," Menser said, "it's not appropriate to cut funding to law enforcement in this climate, but it is to Public Health?" He clarified later that he wasn't trying to talk them out of cuts to Public Health, but to question their prior decision.
Edwards said Public Health is receiving over $6 million in funding from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, which can be used to cover some expenses incurred in response to COVID-19, and said the department could get creative. Much of the savings proposed by PHSS came from redeploying staff to respond to the pandemic.
But when Hutchings pointed out one of the department's proposed actions was a $3,530 reduction to Veterans Services, Edwards made an exception.
"Still, it's the idea that we would not even be here enjoying a free country if it wasn't for our veterans," Edwards said. That was the only other line item removed from departments' budget-cut proposals Thursday.
Menser sees a trend
During the commissioners' debate Thursday, Menser also drew a connection between Thursday's conversation and a recently passed, regularly scheduled budget amendment, which presented an opportunity for offices and departments to make requests for adjustments to the budget.
Menser ended up voting against the amendment, saying the "tipping point" for him was that the budget amendment process didn't "reflect a consistent level of oversight" of all offices and departments in the county.
The impact of the amendment to the General Fund, with all adjustments considered, was $1.2 million. The big change, Campbell said Friday, was a $165,000 increase to the Sheriff's corrections budget and a $786,000 increase to the Sheriff's law enforcement budget.
Many of the votes included in the amendment were unanimous, including votes for some of the Sheriff's Office's spending, such as replacing outdated tasers and the balance for an exchange of equipment with Lewis County.
But, again, the commissioners clashed over making exceptions for the office when it comes to expenses such as $238,344 for funding sick and vacation time buyouts for retiring employees.
Other offices and departments would like to see their buyouts covered, Campbell told commissioners, but only the Sheriff's Office requested it. That was approved 2-1, with Edwards and Hutchings voting yes.
Later, when commissioners considered a roughly $86,000 non-departmental request to cover the cost of code compliance in Community Planning & Economic Development, this time Edwards was the lone no vote, saying "they don't throw bricks at them."
Menser questioned if he meant a person has to have bricks thrown at them to be of value to Thurston County and its citizens.
"That's the standard by which we're evaluating budget requests?" Menser said, to which Edwards replied "Yep, I guess it is..."
Sheriff John Snaza started 2020 with a resolve to move past budget tensions, after commissioners approved an extra $475,000 to cover law enforcement overspending in a late-2019 budget amendment. Snaza said then that the department had been transparent about its spending and is underfunded.
Commissioner Hutchings said he thinks that, because he and Commissioner Edwards have law enforcement backgrounds, the optics are that this is preferential treatment.
"But I'm basing it on what I would consider research and evidence," he said. "I understand it, I understand the level of service for the public and officer safety."
Thursday's decisions aren't set in stone
There's another budget work session scheduled Monday, when the board expects to consider options such as a staff furlough proposal or reduction to weekly work hours.
Campbell said the county is treating the decisions made Thursday as final when it comes to budget reductions, but that the board can always change directions. Next, staff will create a report that includes Thursday's decisions and decisions expected Monday and publish it in early July.
A public hearing on the amendment is planned to be set for July 21, and the Board is expected to vote a week later, Campbell said.
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