Walla Walla County officials outline needs, worries to legislators

Programs and projects on the county wish list include drug interdiction and a social services facility.

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WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla County officials met with local state lawmakers Tuesday to talk about the upcoming legislative session, but the discussion was punctuated with a billion-plus dollar question mark.

Faced with a shortfall in state revenues which could range up to $2 billion, the talk of major cuts in state funding are already being heard "early in the budget session," said Dave Hopper, county Department of Human Services interim director.

However, Sen. Mike Hewitt, Rep. Maureen Walsh and Rep. Terry Nealey were briefed on a number of programs and projects which county officials hope will continue to receive money or otherwise garner support during the session.

One of those is a program that helps rural areas left out of all other funding resources fight drug dealing. According to Sheriff's Det. Sgt. Gary Bolster, the Methamphetamine Pilot Project pays for the Southeastern Washington Narcotics Team, which covers Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield counties, as well as two similar teams in the northeast and southwest areas of the state.

Despite significant progress, money for the program ends this year, Bolster said. In response to a question from Hewitt, Bolster said the funding for the project totaled probably less than $2 million to support all three teams, which included not only deputies but prosecutors and court clerks tasked with fighting the narcotics trade.

Moving to human services, legislators were asked for help to further plans to create a center for community social services in Walla Walla. The facility would put a number of agencies, such as the DHS and Blue Mountain Action Council, in one location to save clients from having to travel to different locations.

Now in the planning phase, the county is working to apply for grants for the center, which could be in an existing structure or in a new building on county-owned land near the fairgrounds, said Anne Higgins DHS chief financial contracts officer. If built from scratch the cost would be about $6 million, but that approach would allow more agencies to be housed, she said.

Commissioners also asked for aid in helping the county comply with the state's Public Records Act.

Commissioner Gregg Loney said that in particular what is needed is "relief in the process" to allow creation of a central clearing place where requests could be filed.

"We're not trying to hide anything," said Commissioner Greg Tompkins. "But it shouldn't be a penalty if someone files a request and a page gets lost and we get sued."

Another topic legislators were asked to work on was relief from mandates that require action, but come with no funding to pay for the work required, such as updates of the county's Comprehensive Plan.

Hewitt, however, warned that the county's legislative delegation, who are all Republican Party members, face an uphill battle.

In conversations with Sen. Joseph Zarelli, ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Hewitt said GOP members are "not even being invited to the table on the budget" by the Democratic Party leaders who are the majority party in both houses this year.

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