County governments in Washington state are nothing like the federal government when it comes to money management. County governments actually manage money.
Yet, many folks don’t fully grasp the differences. The constant updates on the federal budget crisis and growing national debt have numbed the public to fiscal problems in government — all levels of government.
As a result, Tuesday’s front-page headline, “(Walla Walla) County sees $1.6 million budget gap,” wasn’t alarming to anyone.
It should be.
County governments — like city and state governments — are mandated to approve balanced budgets. But the federal government can borrow to balance the budget, and it’s done that too often. The result of all this deficit spending is a national debt over $17 trillion (increasing at a rate of $2.5 billion a day).
Since Walla Walla County can’t kick the problem down that proverbial road, it means the three commissioners must either cut $1.6 million from the various departments’ budget proposals or raise revenue (taxes).
The Great Recession has forced Walla Walla County, like the other 39 counties in the state, to make deep cuts to budget requests, resulting in, among other things, pay freezes, temporary furloughs and not filling open positions.
To this point, the county has avoided employee layoffs and has not increased property taxes. But the slow economic recovery coupled with rising costs could force drastic cuts now or in the near future.
County Auditor Karen Martin said many county offices are now operating at minimum staff levels.
“We’re already three people short,” Martin said of the Auditor’s Office. “We’re operating on a bare (bones) budget as it is.”
Further cuts will hurt. The result will be reductions or delays in services. And jobs could be lost, which is devastating to those directly affected.
“If the economy doesn’t turn around, there is no question that the current county budget spending, from the current expense fund and the Law and Justice Fund, is not sustainable,” Commissioner Perry Dozier said at a budget hearing this week.
The commissioners and the other elected county officials — auditor, treasurer, sheriff, clerk, prosecutor and coroner — are going to have to make decisions they don’t want to make.
That’s the reality, often harsh, of a government where fiscal responsibility is mandated.
But it still beats the ever-expanding debt at the federal level.