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County budget woes focus of GOP meeting

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Yakima County Commissioners Kevin Bouchey and Mike Leita (L-R) tell those attending last Friday morning's Republican Club meeting how they are hoping to address the county's budget problems.

It's no secret that Yakima County commissioners have been grappling with how to tackle the county budget for the past few years.

With budget shortfalls, the primary concern of commissioners is how to provide services with less money.

Commissioners Mike Leita and Kevin Bouchey were the guest speakers last Friday morning at the Sunnyside Republican Club meeting, sharing some of the budget concerns and how they are attempting to address them.

Most of the discussion centered on the law and justice budget because citizens in the county know the sheriff's office and prosecuting attorney have been vocal about not wanting budget cuts.

Also, the county jail needs to be revamped and voters in August rejected a sales tax proposal that would have generated more revenue for the jail's renovations.

"It was difficult to decide on a $3 million road levy shift," said Leita.

He said the county, however, must "deal with the jail debt debacle."

Leita said the county "...will try to do to the best it can with what road funds are available."

He said housing inmates can be expensive, and the population in the Yakima County Jail has changed over the years because there are more violent offenders serving sentences.

Bouchey said he believes the private sector backgrounds of the three commissioners create a balance.

Because they are familiar with the private sector, the commissioners are better able to look at budget shortfalls from a different point of view.

"Fiscal discipline is important to the commissioners," said Bouchey.

He said the commissioners know that IOU's cannot be written at the local level like they can at the federal level.

Because the budget is of such great concern, the commissioners must also deal with pressure from the various Yakima County departments, including the law and justice department.

He said more than 80 percent of the county's budget is tied up in law and justice.

How the sheriff and prosecutor spend the money in their budgets is decided internally, not by commissioners.

"The system's gotta change...we've gotta look at how we can do business better," said Bouchey.

One way to do that, he said, is by developing partnerships. The county has found some partnerships are beneficial, such as a partnership with the city of Yakima. The city, he said, has a strong purchasing department and joint purchases via that department have saved the county money.

Another partnership with the city of Sunnyside has mutually benefited the county and the city. Sunnyside receives information technology services from the county, which gives the city the advantage of using the vast amount of knowledge and technical services provided by county staff. The county benefits because of revenues generated by the contracted services.

Both commissioners agreed there is a level of concern regarding some services, particularly services provided by law enforcement.

They said deputies have been vocal about their staffing levels and have gone as far as to accuse the commissioners from hiding funds. The commissioners were vindicated by the U.S. Department of Justice when the claim was investigated.

"Yakima County is on the high end of paying for law and justice...most county budgets have closer to 70 percent going toward law and justice," said Bouchey. "And, they don't have a law and justice tax."

Leita said the law and justice tax has been helpful in covering some costs, however. "We would be worse off without that money."

He said it is important to evaluate the salaries of Yakima County's deputies, who have continued to receive pay hikes on an annual basis.

Leita said other departments have taken pay freezes to save jobs, but the deputies continue to see raises.

Also, the deputies are on a different health care plan than the rest of the employees in the county. He said the county would save additional money if the union representing the deputies would agree to use the same health care plan used by other county employees.

"We could pay for additional deputies with that money," said Leita.

He said the commissioners have a good working relationship with Sheriff Ken Irwin and would like nothing more than to fund additional deputies.

"But there has to be a balanced system," said Bouchey.

Both commissioners said they believe the sheriff also receives internal pressure when it comes to salaries and the budget.

Bouchey said that is why the commissioners recently had an evaluation of the law and justice system completed. He said the recommendations may not be implemented in 2013, but the commissioners hope to put into action some of the recommendations in the next couple of years.

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