Much like a rising tide raises all boats, inflation and uncertain budget outlooks leave no one, including governments, unscathed.
Higher costs, including at the Lewis County Jail, have led Lewis County officials to make spending cuts, consider additional cuts and declare their support for law enforcement. It also led to disagreement among the Lewis County commissioners on how to budget in a time of economic uncertainty.
This week, commissioners formally approved the county’s 2024 budget over an objection from Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who claimed the budget is over-reliant on reserve funds and called for fiscal responsibility, including from the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily a disagreement with fully funding law enforcement,” Commissioner Scott Brummer said.
The decision comes as staff and commissioners could consider unspecified future cuts to county services after previous staffing reductions saved an estimated $500,000 a year.
In an email Monday evening, Pollock said her seatmates should avoid delaying the inevitable.
“When commissioners promise no tax increase, I believe the public understands that we would adopt a budget in balance with the county’s income. The budget just approved over my objection is balanced by one-time revenue and depletion of reserves,” Pollock wrote. “The reserves are there to meet unexpected emergencies like flooding and downturns in the economy. It should not be a cookie jar to give the appearance of fiscal responsibility leaving insufficient funds when the inevitable financial downturns and emergencies arise.”
On Tuesday, The Chronicle sat down with all three commissioners individually to better understand the 2024 budget, the county’s economic outlook and funding for the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
Where things stand
The commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the 2024 budget Monday, with commissioners Brummer and Sean Swope in support and Pollock the lone “no” vote.
The budget includes expenditures of $200.1 million and revenue of $172.2 million, according to a preliminary budget presented Nov. 21. But at the center of contention is the Lewis County Jail, which has seen a reduced inmate population in recent months.
According to previous reporting from The Chronicle, the Lewis County Jail had a total system population of 140 inmates, including 127 in the general population and 13 in the Work Ethic and Restitution Center on Oct. 18, compared to a system population of 208 inmates, with 179 in the general population, 28 in the Work Ethic and Restitution Center and one on work release during the same week in 2019.
“We are scrambling to maintain minimum staffing levels and to help mitigate that, we are trying to reduce (Lewis County Jail) population as much as possible for safety and security,” Jail Chief Chris Sweet wrote in an email to a Chronicle reporter on Oct. 18. “However, our population has not been reducing as much as we would like.”
During the 2024 budgeting cycle, Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza requested an additional $576,000 for the sheriff’s office, a request that was previously rejected outright. Separately, Snaza, who oversees the jail as sheriff, requested an additional $522,000 in funds for jail operations.
The 2024 budget as passed includes an increase of roughly $417,000 for the jail, which Swope claims was a compromise with Pollock, though Pollock claims that discussion came before the commissioners received firmer financial numbers.
“I would not have increased the jail as much, because I think there’s some opportunity there between the jail and sheriff to adjust middle management expenditures,” Pollock said Tuesday. “It’s a unique point in time, right now, and this would be the time to take advantage of it.”
As an elected official, Pollock pointed out that the sheriff is free to “spend his funds as he sees fit,” though she said she wouldn’t want to see public safety impacted. With approval from the commissioners, Pollock said Snaza could transfer funds from the sheriff’s office to the jail.
Pollock’s seatmates said higher costs and the required services offered at the jail mean it simply costs more to operate.
“They need more funding. That’s one of the reasons we asked the public for that sales tax increase,” Swope said, referring to an initiative that would have collected a .2% sales tax to fund its 911 call center. The measure failed on the November ballot, and commissioners have signaled it will likely again be up for a vote next year. “Our public safety cost is just going up and there’s not a whole lot of funding, extra funding, out there.”
During the interview, Swope said “our public safety is not right sized right now, we’re understaffed,” and referenced data that shows Washington state ranks 51st in the country for police officers per 1,000 residents, behind every other state and the District of Columbia.
“We need more law enforcement in Lewis County. We are massively understaffed in our jail facility. And so I don’t think the increase that they’re asking for is outside of the ordinary,” Swope said.
Swope said once the sheriff’s office fills two open deputy positions in the department, he will push for additional funding for staffing.
“I don’t think you can ever lose with providing more public safety for the people in our community,” Swope said. “That to me is money that’s well spent. If we have to make cuts in other places to provide public safety, that’s just what we have to do. And right now, we’re undersized. We’re not right-sized.”
Brummer said that law and safety, and holding criminals accountable, is a “priority of our local government.”
“From my perspective, it’s prioritizing to ensure that we can be tough on crime in Lewis County,” Brummer said. “Unfortunately, costs continue to go up.”
Inflation has resulted in higher costs to provide food and health care to inmates, and Brummer claimed some received better treatment than some veterans and children.
“It does make me angry,” he said.
Where they could go
The commissioners pointed to fiscal uncertainty in the first quarter of 2024, and Pollock said the county received notice of “softening in the sales tax revenue.”
“And then, additionally, there will be an additional $200,000 that the combined user committee voted to increase Lewis County’s portion of 911, so that has to be absorbed as well,” Pollock said.
According to Brummer, the budget is a living document and can be amended as needed. As for what those cuts could look like, or how much could potentially need to be reduced, the commissioners have less certainty.
“It’s completely unknown at this time,” Pollock said of the potential amount of cuts needed in the new year. “What we do is just keep a watch on what revenue is looking like.”
Brummer said the focus would remain on providing essential government services such as law and safety, adding he “wouldn’t want to speculate” on the services that could be reduced.
Likewise, Pollock said several of the county’s departments already “run very lean.”
“So we would need to look at what is needed to provide essential services,” Pollock said, adding she considers law and justice, the collection and assessment of taxes, roads and “basically keeping the peace” as among Lewis County’s essential priorities.
“There’s not a whole lot outside of that that is not funded by specific funding sources,” Pollock said. “So you have to look at where specific funding streams are coming from and how they can be allocated. And we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Like his seatmates, Swope didn’t cite particular areas.
“To be honest, I haven’t even thought about the cut piece because I feel like we’ve done a good job in the sense of having a rainy day fund,” Swope said. “And I don’t want to project that there’s cuts coming or anything like that.”
The commissioners praised the work of County Manager Ryan Barrett and the fiscal staff as they looked for different ways to save money.
“We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Swope said.