Walla Walla County 2011 budget nears final approval

The latest moves include concessions from three of four unions representing county employees.

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WALLA WALLA - Walla Walla County commissioners began to close in on approval of the county's 2011 budget Friday.

Commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding with the deputy sheriff's union under which the deputies agreed to a 12-month deferral of their cost-of-living increase. The agreement meant there will be no reduction in the current complement of 24 commissioned deputy sheriff positions.

Commissioners and outgoing Sheriff Mike Humphreys told the union representatives, Sgt. Gary Bolster and Sgt. Tom Cooper, to relay their thanks to the deputies for being willing to work out solutions during a difficult budget year.

"The officers met with the other commissioned deputies and voted unanimously to do this and my hat's off to them," Humphreys said. "This will hopefully save jobs and I truly thank them."

The agreement was the latest step in negotiations to close major gaps in the coming year's budget brought on by flat or severely reduced revenues. Commissioners will resume their deliberations Monday and hope to approve the budget and property tax levies either that day or Tuesday, said Gregg Loney, commission chairman.

County revenues from property taxes, real estate excise taxes, new construction, sales tax and investment income have stayed flat or dropped dramatically compared to previous years, said County Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner.

As an example, new construction has dropped from more than $182 million in 2009 to a projected figure of about $45.7 million in the coming year, Heimbigner said. Property tax revenues have remained flat while real estate excise taxes have dropped from $380,667 in 2008 to a projected figure of $130,800 in 2011. Interest income from investment of county funds has dropped from $806,266 in 2008 to about $260,000 this year.

At an earlier budget workshop, Loney said the initial gap between projected revenues and expenditures in the current expense fund was $1.7 million, which pays for much of the county's day-to-day operations. But that swelled to about $2.1 million after medical insurance costs were added.

As a result of negotiations, three of the four unions representing county employees have agreed to various concessions that have helped shrink the gap.

In addition to the agreement with the deputies' union, the union representing Public Works and Road Department employees agreed to concessions in medical insurance costs and the union representing courthouse employees has agreed to accept six unpaid furlough days this year.

The Public Works Department, which Loney noted has a separate source of funding and is not in the same financial position as the current expense fund, has also instituted various cost-savings measures such as staff reductions through attrition and not re-filling positions.

As part of the negotiations, both unions requested, and received, a condition that union membership would be required for employment, according to a letter sent out by commissioners earlier this month.

The union representing sheriff's officers who work in the County Jail did not agree to any concessions, according to commissioners.

The county's Public Health Department and Human Services Department, which largely depend on state funds for their operations, have already instituted unpaid furlough days with employees scheduled to take one day a month off during the coming year.

Loney and fellow commissioners Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier have also agreed to take six furlough days in 2011. Since commissioners cannot reduce their salaries, they will pay back the wages for the six days into the county's general fund, Loney said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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