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Yakima County plans to eliminate jobs in effort to balance 2009 budget

YAKIMA - It's a numbers game no one wants to play.

Faced with increases in pay and benefits for county employees, Yakima County commissioners essentially told its department heads to individually come up with the money on their own for the higher worker costs.

The result is a preliminary budget that calls for 32 employees to be terminated, reducing the county's workforce by almost 8 percent.

Commissioner Mike Leita yesterday called it a "pruning process to gain greater efficiencies." Noting that residents live in an agricultural area, Leita added, "I think we all understand the benefits of pruning."

Leita's comments came during a preliminary budget presentation yesterday morning at the county courthouse. Commissioners are planning a budget hearing in Sunnyside on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Law and Justice Center.

Whether or not the budget pruning is a benefit remains to be seen, but at least it means the county's proposed $52 million general budget for 2009 will be balanced.

The Monday morning meeting revealed what the balancing act will mean if the 2009 budget as presented is passed:

- Gone will be 20 employees in the county's juvenile detention division. Court administrator Harold Delia said juvenile detention will have 14 fewer beds in 2009, according to the proposed budget. He said the cut puts an end to a short-lived effort in which the county tried to set aside more beds for juveniles guilty of graffiti.

- The Yakima County Sheriff's office will not fill three vacant deputy positions and one vacant clerical job.

- Builders may need more time to process projects in unincorporated areas, as the Yakima County Planning Department plans to lay off six workers, including three managers.

- Prosecutor Ron Zirkle said his department will not face layoffs, but that the next prosecutor will face hard choices in 2010. Those choices include likely laying off some employees and not pursuing prosecution of some cases.

Besides layoffs, as it stands now Yakima County will balance its general fund in 2009 by pulling $1 million from reserves. The county maintains a reserve fund to help it pay the bills during times of reduced income as it collects property taxes just twice each year.

Not all of the news is bad, says Craig Warner, the county's budget director.

"We had a very good sales tax year, which means our economy is still doing well in Yakima County," he said prior to yesterday's meeting. Further, he noted the county is collecting less interest and penalties on property taxes. That means more residents are paying their taxes on time.

On the down side, the county's investments are mirroring the current financial crisis, as earnings are projected to be $675,000 less in 2009.

Add to that the increase in pay and benefits, and Yakima County faces a tough numbers game.

"It's a choice, do we pay the people here more and have fewer of them, or do we pay everybody the same and everybody can still be here," said Warner. If the choice is to provide no increases in wages or benefits, then Warner said a whole new set of problems is created. "At what point do you start seeing turnover and what's the cost of turnover to the organization?"

Lower Valley residents can weigh in on that choice during the preliminary budget hearing set for Sunnyside on Nov. 19.

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