Walla Walla County eyes furloughs

The cost-saving measures could be put into effect for two county departments.

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WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla County Commissioners tabled a decision today about adding furlough days for two county departments.

The move gives the board time to gather more information, commissioners said.

At issue are unpaid days off for public health and human services employees. If the commissioners give a nod at Tuesday's meeting, those department heads will have the green light to use furlough days as a way to save money.

"Everyone is trying to identify the impact" of the move, noted commission Chairman Greg Loney.

While county tax dollars fund a relatively small chunk of public health and human services budgets, staff in those departments are county employees and commissioners have some budgetary oversight, he said.

State funding cuts are deep and will be even more so in the coming months, said Department of Human Services Director Daryl Daugs. With an original payroll of $2.5 million, "in our department we are projecting cuts of 10 to 12 percent," he said this morning. "In addition, we are projecting cuts at the next legislative session. We are preparing for cuts of 15 to 25 percent."

By instituting an extra day off once a month and not filling three empty administrative positions, the effect on the community should be negligible, Daugs hopes. "For the average consumer, overall, it's just one extra day a month that we will be closed. We are not making any cuts in mental health direct services which is the lion's share of services we provide."

The goal is to keep the department whole so that every professional on staff now will still be available to clients, Daugs said. Clients will get help planning ahead in making appointments. To take out a little of the sting of losing some pay, furlough days will be attached to weekends, he added. "We regularly have three-day weekends, so this will be mostly like one more."

But there is no sugar coating the whole deal, Daugs conceded.

"The reality is, these cuts suck. It's really a drag. We are serving the most vulnerable population and dealing with budget cuts for the last 10 years. And now we are taking budget cuts again."

One of his employees puts it best, he feels. "We make life and death decisions every day," the director said. One of my clinicians said 'Now it feels like we're making death and death decisions.'"

Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department, frames the situation in an equally succinct phrase -- "The light at the end of the tunnel is the train."

His department also plans to use furloughs, Crowder said.

It's nearly the only tool available to him. "We are under-budget and we are under-spending, but we are also under-earning."

While the recent flu-shot clinic will help make up some of the loss, the health department will lose most of its budget for HIV services in direct funding. "A lot of the work in testing we do, what we used to be able to do for free will have to be done at cost. And there will be no staff time to do prevention work."

Also gone will be state funding for oral health and tobacco prevention programs, he said. "The state money runs out in July. I'm not sure if we are going to get any of it back."

More cuts are likely to come, Crowder said.

The furlough days will save his department about $10,000 and will help postpone staff cuts as long as possible, he added. "We've been really lucky that we have preserved staff and programs so far."

People who use the Health Department have not seen budget cuts so far. The immunization program continues to be healthy and staff excels in bringing in grant money, he said. "But you have to have big chunks of money to cover overhead and fill in the holes to cover what the grant doesn't."

No cost-saving measures make for a crystal ball, Crowder pointed out. "Right now, it's like looking through milk glass ... you can see shapes in the fog, but you don't know what the real impact will be."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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