With only two weeks remaining until the Snohomish County Council is expected to adopt a budget for 2011, council members this week focused their attention on the need to rebuild reserve funds that are critical to the county’s long-term fiscal health. Council Chair Dave Gossett likened the reserve funds to a savings account and noted that “the county’s strong reserves are what allowed us to weather the early stages of the economic crisis until the Council could act to cut expenditures. Without that money in the bank we would have faced even deeper cuts to essential programs and services.”
While council members generally agreed that the operating budget proposal presented by the county executive is a reasonable plan that is consistent with the Council’s fiscal policies and directions, some expressed concern that large gaps in the capital budget could put the county’s reserves at risk. Council Vice Chair Dave Somers compared the situation to a homeowner who is able to meet their monthly mortgage payment, but who does not have enough money put aside in a savings account to handle routine maintenance.
“Things may seem OK on the surface, but if the roof needs repairs or the heater goes out, there may not be enough in the bank for basic repairs to keep the house livable.”
Gossett also expressed concern that paying for unfunded roads and technology projects could require dipping into reserves at a time when “we need to be building them back to pre-recession levels.” As an example he cited the lack of adequate funding in the executive’s budget for a key part of the E-911 emergency response communications system that will replace aging, out-of-date technology with a system linking 57 police and fire agencies throughout the county.
“We’ve been told the system could cost $1.7 million over five years, but the executive included only $50,000. We must do better than this in the budget the Council adopts,” Gossett said.
Councilmember Stephanie Wright who chairs the Public Works and Transportation Committee concurred with the need to plan for technology projects, and added concerns about the county’s ability to fund critical road and transportation projects.
“The ability to move goods and people is absolutely essential to the long-term health and economic viability of this county,” noted Wright. “It is not an option to push these decisions off to the future and hope the money will materialize.”
Holding the line on expenditures is a key priority for Councilmember John Koster who commented that “this Council must remain firm in our goal of living within our means. Lots of great programs are facing cuts, but we cannot put off the tough decisions.”
Gossett cited his initiatives to create a new reserve fund for capital expenditures, and to develop a business plan for funding capital projects as two components of the Council’s action plan to tackle the problem of paying for critical projects without depleting reserve funds. “Of course we will scour the budget for every available dollar and aggressively look for grant opportunities,” he said, “but we cannot hope to make measureable progress without a sound plan to guide our actions.”
The Council is expected to take action the budget for 2011 at a public meeting on Monday, November 22, 2010 at 10:30 a.m.