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County approves $55.3 million general fund budget for 2013

YAKIMA - The good news is that Yakima County has a budget for 2013, following action yesterday, Tuesday, by Yakima County commissioners.

But the bad news is Yakima County's court system will likely see more operational delays.

Yakima County commissioners approved a $55.3 million general fund budget for 2013, which primarily covers the county's day-to-day operational costs.

They pretty much held to the preliminary budget unveiled last month.

During that meeting, Commissioner Mike Leita said the plan was to limit law and justice costs to 82 percent of the general fund budget due to cuts made in the past by other departments.

"We're drawing a line, you must live within your means," Leita said of public safety/law and justice budgets. "More money will not solve the problems."

As a result, public safety/law and justice departments had to come up with $1.6 million in cuts needed to shore up a Department of Corrections shortfall anticipated for 2013.

The county's court system, for example, saw its budget take a $545,274 hit for 2013. Harold Delia is the county's court consultant, and he says that reduction means a loss of six jobs.

One of the job cuts will mean letting a court commissioner go, leaving Yakima County with just one full-time court commissioner and a part-time commissioner who only works three days a week. Delia says they are responsible for divorce and custody hearings. Down a commissioner, Delia says families and children will see a delay as some will now have to fit into an already backlogged court system.

"It's a real problem for children and parents," says Delia.

The county's court system will also have let go one of its three interpreters. "Sixty percent of the clients we deal with require an interpreter," Delia said.

Also gone in 2013 will be two positions in the county's juvenile detention facility. He says that means fewer people available to provide oversight for juveniles outside of detention, such as tutoring and worship services. Delia calls those now reduced opportunities a "springboard to get them back into the community."

Yakima County courts are also eliminating two clerical office support jobs next year.

Delia says the court system is looking for grants to help support its programs next year, as well as seeking cost saving measures to make the justice system more efficient.

The bottom line, he notes, is that the county's court system can't take any more cuts in the future.

"The judges are very concerned because this is the fifth year of cuts," Delia says. "We're close to not providing constitutional rights."

He added, "When it comes down to it the judges are at the point of saying we're not taking any more cuts after this year."

While county commissioners call for more fiscal accountability and the courts seek stable funding, all can agree that the heart of the problem is Yakima County's lack of revenue.

During a preliminary budget presentation last month, the county's budget director, Craig Warner, noted that Yakima County is taking in nearly $1 million less in sales and property tax revenues than it did four years ago.

Delia says the lack of revenue is a problem.

"Yes, we (law and justice) do take up 82 percent of the budget, but 82 percent of a small pie is a lot less than 70 percent of a big pie," Delia said in a comparison to Kitsap County, which has a population size similar to Yakima County's but a larger revenue base.

The budget approved yesterday also includes nearly $3 million taken from road funds and applied towards the debt on the county's new jail.

In order to balance the 2013 budget, Warner says Yakima County will take $788,155 from reserves.

In related action yesterday, commissioners agreed to hold 11 percent of revenues in reserve, instead of a previous policy of 12 percent. The reserves are needed because the county only receives tax payments twice each year, requiring it to have funds in savings to meet month-to-month requirements.

Overall, Yakima County is looking at a budget of $235.2 million in 2013. That includes $22.7 million for corrections and $29 million for roads.

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