Biennial Budget Nearing Final Vote

Biennial Budget Nearing Final Vote

– Derek Young, Pierce County Council

Sometime Monday afternoon, the Council will wrap up the final amendments and likely pass Pierce County’s first biennial budget. The Council started its part of the budget process after the County Executive presented his recommendation back in September. Since that time, we’ve met in less formal budget retreats and then convened our Committees of the Whole, affectionately known as COWs. On Saturday, the last COW rolled the amendments into a substitute bill and forwarded it to the Council.

This year we thought we’d try something different and introduce the budget with a podcast recording. Joining me is the Council Communications Manager Erin Babbo.

You can see all the budget documents and follow along here.

Budget Basics

Although we talk about “the budget” as though it’s one list of revenue and expenditures, in practice, it’s closer to three related but separate components. The General Fund, Special Revenue Funds, and Enterprise Funds.

  • General Fund — This is what most people think of when you imagine a government budget. It’s where are most flexible tax revenue is collected and appropriated. Depending on the year, 75–80 percent of it will be spent on public safety and justice services. While “the budget” is a little over a billion dollars now, the General Fund is about percent of that total.
  • Special Revenue Funds — These are taxes and other sources of revenue that are limited by state or local code for a specific purpose. Depending on the restrictions, they may be combined with the General Fund, but are always kept separate to ensure we follow the law. Examples are the Road Fund, Real Estate Excise Tax, and Drug Investigation Fund.
  • Enterprise Funds — These funds are kept apart from the rest of the budget because they operate as businesses. Revenue is fee-based and spent only on running the service. Examples are sewer utilities and surface water management.

It surprises a lot of people that only about 31 percent of the budget is from tax revenue. The next largest source is service charges at 27 percent. The rest comes from a combination of grants, intergovernmental transfers, fines, etc.

This mix of different sources of funding and expenses is what makes counties different than cities. While we both provide local services, counties also have countywide and regional obligations. As subdivisions of State government, we’re also obligated to carry out various duties on the State’s behalf like criminal justice, tax collections, elections, and human services.

Highlights

At the countywide level, we’ve added additional resources into public safety, continuing the restoration of staffing to the Sheriff Department. While we still aren’t able to afford the level of staffing we think is necessary, it’s good to see a corresponding decrease in crime rates.

When we first convened the Opioid Task Force, I’m not sure what I expected to come out of the process, but with staff support, we’re now turning ideas into reality. It used to take more than a week to find and begin treatment services. Now we’re rolling out programs start intake immediately. We’ve expanded treatment into jail and continued to build the drug courts. We funded staff support to United Way’s South Sound 211 to respond to the full spectrum of behavioral health disorders. We’re also training and equipping the entire Sheriff’s Department with Naloxone to save lives.

The Help Me Grow (HMG) program is ready for implementation, and I’m proud that we were able to partner with the State to pilot the program right here in Pierce County. It’s designed to give babies and young children the start in life they deserve. HMG builds capacity within existing organizations in the community to extend support to more families, emphasizing coordination rather than creating new infrastructure. They’ll also utilize the 211 system to connect people to services.

Reaching out to people in need with non-emergency medical services is not only the right thing to do, it also saves first responder resources and emergency room capacity. Two years ago we started the Mobile Community Intervention Response Team (MCIRT) pilot and its been a success. I’m excited that we’re now ready to bring it to the peninsulas.

On transportation, we’re making preparations improvements to Fox Island Bridge, Lackey Rd / Jackson Lake Rd / Key Pen Hwy Intersection, Key Peninsula Hwy / 134 Ave NW Intersection, and Pt Fosdick rehabilitation. We also gave staff direction to more closely coordinate with their colleagues at Pierce Transit to ensure that transit is part of our public and private development considerations.

On the environment, we’re adding a planner position to update and monitor our Sustainability Plan. We’re also giving staff additional direction to develop regulations and policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

More locally, we’re proud to continue our partnership with community organizations like Communities in Schools, Children’s Home Society, and Key Peninsula Partnership for a Healthy Community. We’ll also continue directing capital funding support to our peninsula metropolitan park districts.

Disappointments

While we are making progress on several fronts, I’m saddened we didn’t go further on matters of justice and sustainability.

Unlike most other large urban communities with large immigrant populations, Pierce County doesn’t provide indigent defense services for people facing removal orders. We know that most would be able to stay if they had an attorney helping them navigate the system. We also know that most will leave behind families who will struggle to provide for themselves.

We also failed again to add a 23rd judge to the Superior Court. The move would have allowed expansion of our therapeutic court services, which reduces burdens on the system elsewhere, potentially saving money. But more importantly, we know their caseload has justified the need for many years. We have the most felony filings of any county in the State but just half the judges, prosecutors, and public defenders to hand them.

My proposal to bring in management-level staff to direct countywide sustainability efforts also did not pass. This is frustrating because it’s likely to cost us more soon. We must protect what’s unique about life in South Sound. But we also know that if we don’t prepare for the impacts of climate change, we’ll pay far more later.

Looking Forward

With another budget cycle nearing an end, I’m more convinced than ever that we need the Legislature to enact tax and funding reforms to save county budgets. Our highly regressive and localized tax structure is bad enough. When combined with unfunded mandates from the Legislature, it makes it impossible for us to ensure essential services are adequately supported. This is a matter of equity and justice.

On Tuesday I’m meeting with county colleagues from around Washington in part to prepare for the year ahead. As co-chair of the Legislative Steering Committee, this will be my priority in the coming session.