Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday approved a 2019 budget that adds 22 new positions to the county’s 600-employee workforce, including one new sheriff’s deputy, a new assistance prosecutor, two corrections officers and a juvenile mental health counselor.
The county will be spending more than it takes in from revenues. But it still will maintain a 10 to 12 percent budget reserve, which exceeds the county’s goal.
Commissioners Arne Mortensen and Joe Gardner voted to approve the budget. Dennis Weber did not, citing concerns about inadequate funding for county roads and the sheriff’s office.
“I disagree that we’re going in the right direction,” Weber said. “To me, roads equal economic development. If we ignore road improvements, we cut our own throats in terms of (development).”
The county can expand its workforce, Weber said, because of four revenue-boosting factors:
- Property values in the county have increased $120 million, generating a windfall in property tax collections.
- Sales-tax revenue has exceeded projections.
- Timber sales receipts from county-owned forest lands managed by the state have generated more than normal revenues.
- A steady flow of employee retirements is resulting in a younger, lower-salaried work force.
The new sheriff’s deputy position is something that Sheriff Mark Nelson has requested for years because his department has not grown to handle the county’s growth over the last couple decades.
At Tuesday’s commissioner’s meeting, Mortensen said he is “very nervous” about the county’s finances, but he said the the commissioners will keep looking at ways to increase resources for the sheriff.
Other new positions will include a new jail corrections officer, another public defense attorney; a parks maintenance worker; several GIS specialists; an executive director, human resources manager and dispatcher for the newly constituted 911 dispatch agency; three jobs in the planning office; and four public works employees. In all, employment will rise by 22.5 full-time employees, according to budget documents.
Among some other major increases, payments to the employee pension fund are rising about 13 percent next year, Weber said. The county also is expecting to spend an additional $600,000 for salaries to make up for recession-era years in which workers got no cost of living raises, Weber said. Jail medical expenses, replacement of the jail kitchen and a 27 percent increase in property insurance also were significant cost increases, according to county budget documents.
The county general fund — which pays for basic government operations — will be $69.8 million. It’s hard to compare to previous years because of accounting changes. However, general fund revenues are estimated to increase by $3.4 million over this year.
The $14.5 million capital budget includes $9 million for repairs and maintenance to the Hall of Justice, Cowlitz County Administration Building and Annex, Health Department Building Juvenile Center and county morgue.