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Small counties are close to the people

The Franklin County Courthouse is in Pasco. Credit: Allen4names

Three King County legislators want to ask Washington voters to amend the state constitution to allow the legislature to shut down counties that get more in state funds than they send to the treasury in taxes. The proposal is mostly for show, just as proposals from Eastern Washington legislators in past years proposed cutting the state in half at the Cascade Crest. But a Crosscut article by Knute Berger generated considerable response and interest in looking at county government more generally.

The fact that small, rural, and largely Eastern Washington counties have a negative balance of payments is hardly new; anyone looking at where the big shopping and commercial areas are located could figure it out. The same dynamic occurs in nearly every state in the union, and always has. For that matter, some city neighborhoods generate cash and others spend it.

The legislative proposal may serve to shine a light on how counties spend their funds, however, and how they deal with the revenue they receive. Such a light should show that for the most part small counties are good stewards of their funds, live within their means, and don’t spend a lot of time complaining about it. They like to elect most of their officials, even including coroners who are ill-qualified for their work, and the courthouse remains a focal point of political life. Ritzville isn’t Bellevue and we’re all better for it.

County governments in rural and small-town Washington are close to their constituents and usually more conservative in taxing and spending than the big urban counties ringing Puget Sound. As a result, cutting a deputy sheriff, a drug counselor, or health worker is often a blow to a family everyone in the county knows or knows about. But serious cuts have been made in the last three years, and in many ways the small counties have been more realistic about the economy than their big-city cousins.

As a general rule, according to Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, the counties that have had the most fiscal trouble with the recession have been suburban, not rural. In suburban counties the housing boom created a batch of new money (higher sales and property taxes), but when the bubble burst these counties faced a serious decline in revenues.

Small farming counties tend to have flatter economies less vulnerable to sudden changes in the overall economy. Where all counties are very vulnerable, however, is unexpected costs in the criminal justice system, which accounts for between 62 and 84 percent of counties’ operating costs. A murder investigation or trial can run up costs for public defenders and push a small county to the edge, forcing cuts in other programs. There is state aid in these cases, but never enough.

Franklin County hopes the state’s Extraordinary Criminal Justice Costs program will help pay the staggering cost of three trials for convicted killer Vicente Ruiz, who was sentenced on Jan. 20 to five life terms for killing five men in 1987. The trials (two were declared mistrials) cost the county $578,000 since 2007 and the cost could reach $668,000 when all bills are counted. The county is asking $373,000 from the state fund for the two trials that took place in 2010. County prosecutors are on the regular payroll, but no one can predict outside costs for public defenders, translators, and witnesses in a big trial.

Franklin County’s ability to get help from the state is limited at best, and dependent upon legislative largess in the tightest budget in many years; funding is entirely in the hands of the legislature — the governor submits no budget for the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Program. In 2010, a total of $620,000 was distributed to Jefferson, Skagit, and Franklin counties. The previous year, $500,000 was distributed to Franklin, Skagit, Yakima, Spokane, and King counties.

The state fund has never fully met requests. A 2006 analysis by the Yakima Herald-Republic of reimbursement requests under the 1999 law revealed that the legislature denied three out of four counties that asked for help in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Tiny Grant County did get $70,000 in 2005 and another $54,000 in 2006, but it had asked for some $282,000. Yakima County was stiffed when it asked for $280,000 in 2005, and nearly $367,000 the year before, but in 2007 Yakima got $746,000. Requests from counties will never be fully reimbursed. King County alone often asks for more than a million dollars (but seldom gets anything — in 2010 it got nothing on a request for $3,386,389 for eight cases).

Prosecutors hoping to help keep the county budget in balance are often reluctant to seek the death penalty; most defendants are poor, and public defenders are the largest portion of added costs in major trials. Death penalty cases involve appeals, increasing total costs.

Counties regardless of size are hoping the legislature will change the law on driving with a suspended license; in most of these cases what initially started as a civil infraction turns into a criminal offense, because the cited driver fails to show up in court, often because they simply don’t have funds to pay the fine. “District courts become debtors’ courts,” says Johnson of the Association of Counties, noting that about 30 percent of the caseload in district courts is dealing with driving while suspended.

Decisions on filing criminal charges and sentencing criminals also have big budget impacts. The Spokane Spokesman-Review editorially urged prosecutors and judges to think about taxpayer costs when deciding if a borderline case is a felony or a misdemeanor, and to seek alternative sentencing to reduce jail costs.

Incarceration has actually dropped in recent years, and that has created some unexpected fiscal troubles for counties that invested heavily in jails. Yakima County built a $20.6 million jail four years ago, based partially on a contract to house King County inmates. Last year King County cities pulled out most of the 300 inmates, and this year the jail building goes up for sale. Yakima County is stuck with beds it doesn’t need and nearly $3 million in annual debt. Commissioners admit they made an expensive mistake.

The beat goes on, however, for advocates of new or expanded jails; unions representing corrections officers are often in the vanguard. In Spokane County, plans are being advanced for a $230 million jail, despite a substantial drop in number of inmates and sentence lengths. In Whatcom County, an 800-bed jail is in preliminary planning, with cost estimated at $140 million. The county is also considering two additional phases to the new jail, anticipating a 2050 population of 2450 inmates (up from some 413 daily now). Neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed jail site have raised serious objections; Whatcom already has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Washington.

Counties that have controlled criminal justice costs have fared better in the past three years, although it has been difficult for counties that depend heavily upon revenues from a severance tax for cutting public or private timber. Once a big advantage for timber counties, the volatility of the tax in recent years has forced counties to scramble.

Illustrative of the roller-coaster fortunes of a county with timber funds, Cowlitz County severance taxes brought $2 million to the county’s general fund in 1994 but dropped to $108,000 in 2010. Similar taxes from cutting on state forest lands dropped from $804,000 in 2005 to only $166,000 in 2007; they subsequently rebounded to $648,000 in 2010. “Last year was a better year for timber sales,” says Claire Hauge, Cowlitz director of financial management. “Some of the large stimulus projects call for the sort of long, straight timber we produce, such as utility poles and other construction timber.”

Cowlitz is in better shape than others because it had the foresight to begin budget cuts in 2008, as Hauge and others saw declining timber harvests and decided to get ahead of what was coming. In 2008, Cowlitz began layoffs, which totaled 10 percent of the workforce over the next two years. The county scrambled for other savings: extending the life of vehicles from three to seven years, a mandatory 5 percent cut in either salary or benefits for nonunion workers, furloughs, and limited office hours.

In a nine-month period in 2009, these measures saved some $600,000, Hauge said. As a result, the county in December approved a budget that  preserved jobs for the first time since 2008. “As tight as this is, we’re in pretty good shape,” Commissioner George Raiter told the The Daily News in Longview, “We’re not out of the woods by any means, but we are in better shape than other counties around us.”

Cowlitz and about half of the state’s 39 counties took the 1 percent property tax increase allowed under Initiative 747 of 2001; others “banked” the amount for possible future use.

Counties are looking to the legislature for help in several areas this year, including funding for a larger share of the Extraordinary Criminal Justice applications. Counties also want relief from the requirement that public notices be published in local newspapers, which is certain to be resisted by small papers, and they want to be able to levy a minerals tax on sand and gravel similar to the severance tax on timber.

Mostly, counties hope the legislature will protect existing assistance for small counties that have little flexibility to raise revenue. Otherwise, it will be back to budget cuts that began in 2008 for many of the counties and are just beginning to flatten out in 2011.

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