PORT TOWNSEND — The way Jefferson County budgets for its programs and services will be changed beginning Jan. 1, 2020.
The Jefferson County commissioners Monday unanimously approved amending the Jefferson County Code by adding a new chapter, 3.01, that provides for a biennial budget as allowed under RCW 36.40.250 in state law.
This is a change from the yearly budget cycle that currently exists.
“It sounds like a simple shift and it really is,” Central Services Director Mark McCauley said.
“Every two years you have a labor intensive exercise promulgating a budget, and then at the end of the first year of the budget rather than laboring over a new budget, you make adjustments to the biennial budget that was approved the year before.”
McCauley has experience with biennial budgeting with Clark County, where he was general services director, and wanted to explore the change in Jefferson County.
“I’ve been through two of the grueling [yearly] budget cycles asking myself the question ‘why do we do this?’ After conversations with departments, consensus emerged that a biennium budget with a review would be a good thing for Jefferson County to consider.”
He said this is not an irreversible decision. There is a section of the state law that allows the commissioners to repeal the ordinance and revert back to an annual budget cycle if they feel it isn’t working as planned.
According to the county ordinance, a mid-biennium review and modification of the biennial fiscal budget will occur in all even-numbered years after August and prior to the end of December. County Administrator Philip Morley will prepare and present the proposed modifications to be effective as of the succeeding January in a public hearing. The commissioners have the option to adopt budget modifications at that time.
“Accuracy will not suffer one bit,” McCauley said. “Our staff will not be under the gun for two annual budgets. They’ll be under the gun for one budget cycle and minor modifications for the second of the two-year cycle.”
He said the current technology used for county budgeting cannot handle a 24-month fiscal period, but that it can handle two 12-month annual budgets and that is how his staff will prepare them.
He also pointed out that public works and public health both receive outside funding through grants that don’t know about when budgets are typically written. Being able to make adjustments based on new information will help make for a more detailed and accurate budget, he said.
Commissioners retain full control and authority of the budget throughout the biennium. Transparency is maintained so the public remains fully informed regarding the county budget.
“We’ll have the same visibility over spending and the same control as we do now,” McCauley said. “The public’s visibility of our budget will not be diminished in any way, shape or form.
“Our staff will be freed up to do other good work,” he said. “The review will prepare and present a year-end summary that shows how we are performing in the first year.”
Commissioner Kate Dean said “this process has the potential to have our department directors think more strategically and push more goal setting out further.
“This is an experiment and we’ll go into the cycle,” Dean said. “If it doesn’t meet our goals, we can revisit it.”
During the public hearing, county resident Tom Thiersch asked several questions including how many state counties currently use the system.
McCauley said Washington state is on a biennial budget and that 55 cities and six counties in the state are on a biennial basis, notably King County, which has a 2019-20 budget of $11.7 billion.
Jefferson County’s budget for 2019-20 is $57 million.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].