Monday, April 13, 2009

Public Hearing on Thurston County's Proposed Budget Cuts Draws Over 200

by Janine Gates

Above: Jonathan Mitchell, smiling, sits next to Dylan Kuehl, who testified against budget cuts to the Thurston County Specialized Recreation Program tonight.

The room at the Thurston County Courthouse was filled to its 185 person capacity and an overflow room was opened to accommodate those wishing to testify at the three hour public hearing held tonight to discuss the $5.4 million budget cuts facing Thurston County. This represents a 7.1% cut from the county's $76 million general fund budget.

The general fund is 20% of the Thurston County budget, and is funded primarily from property and sales taxes, both of which have fallen due to the recession. Locally, sales tax revenue is down 22% from 2007. Initiatives have limited property tax growth to 1% a year, which the county says is not enough to keep up with inflation.

Thurston County Commissioner Chair Cathy Wolfe opened the hearing saying, “We are committed to keeping up with our state mandated requirements, which include the court system, elections, tax assessment and collection. We’re going to do the best we can until we get out of this (economic) situation,” saying she hoped property tax will become more stable but even so, “we must live within our means.”

Jim Lazar, a local economist, said the proposed budget cuts to parks and public health are "unacceptable" and offered solutions. "You need to consider imposing transportation and parks impact fees...and consider a temporary wage reduction to county employees." Lazar suggested imposing higher percentage cuts on the higher paid employees. Lazar said there are 57 employees making over $100,000 per year, over 100 making between $80,000 - $100,000, and over 300 employees making between $60,000 - $80,000. The total savings, Lazar said, equals about $4.2 million. Lazar said the entire cut could be restored through the passage of a voter approved levy lid lift.

While most everyone seemed resigned to the reality that cuts need to be made, many spoke passionately against certain cuts, most notably, to the Thurston County Special Recreation Program. Many young adults with various disabilities spoke to the commissioners, advocating on their own behalf, much to the joy and cheers of their supporters.

Dylan Kuehl, 25, spoke against any budget cuts to the Thurston County Specialized Recreation Program. “Without this program, I will feel isolated because there will be no place for me to go. I will feel like a black sheep because I will be alone with no friends. We need to look out for each other. We’re like a big family. If you take away this program, then we won’t be a family anymore. I am worried that I will feel sad and probably need more counseling.” Kuehl, who has Down’s Syndrome, runs his own visual and performing arts company and is a volunteer at the Olympia Food Co-op.

His mother, Terri Rose, also spoke against any budget cuts to the program. “In November 2008, the funds were cut, forcing the organization to lose valuable staff and causing closure of a four day residential camp for people with disabilities. The campers loved this program and provided respite for families and providers….With fewer quality respite opportunities, it’s quite possible that parents and other providers may be overwhelmed with this task.”

While the county has funded the Special Recreation Program through the end of 2009, Rose asked, “What happens on January 1, 2010?” Rose recommended that a citizen advisory committee be formed to work closely with the commissioners to assure that when funding does become available again, that it be used for restoring the specialized recreation program.

Anthony Zoccola, 24, and his parents, Terry and Susan, also spoke passionately for the program, which is under the umbrella of the Thurston County Parks and Recreation Program.

Susan Zoccola has voluntarily coached the Thunderfish swim team since 1994 through the Thurston County Aquatics Program. Susan, who earned the Kiwanis Citizen of the Year award in 2005 for coaching the Thunderfish, said she has a swimming roster of 40 special needs people, from ages 8 to 52. They are currently training for the early May regionals for the Washington Special Olympics. Those who pass the regionals go onto the state games in late May. They swim twice a week for one and a half hours at River Ridge High School. “This program is one of a kind in the country. Without opportunities to meet and develop friendships, their social and verbal skills will decline,” said Terry Zoccola.

Another mother, Dorothy Nash, who said her daughter has Down’s Syndrome, also supported the swimming program, saying her daughter has received a gold medal every year. “It helps her health and well being. It isn’t just a social program…for some, it’s the only outlet of their lives.”

Another mother, in tears, said that her developmentally daughter loves to dance and swim. "These are the kids who are going to get lost in the shuffle and they're the ones who need it most."

Many other speakers addressed the proposed cuts to the Thurston County Fair and 4-H programs, public health, family planning, and the sheriff’s department.

Several law enforcement wives and family members spoke with concern for their loved one's safety. One wife said that most days, her husband is on patrol alone, with no backup, and has answered several domestic violence calls on his own.

One woman said, "I don't know where you live, but I don't want to live in McAllister Park with a $3,000 mortgage to feel safe. If you don't rely on the Thurston County Sheriff's Department, then you don't have the right to make these cuts."

A cut of over $495,000 will be made to the public health and social services department. This includes the Family Planning/Sexually Transmitted Disease program which serves about 3,500 residents, and the Dental Health program and Project Access which helps people gain access to medical services. Making cuts to these programs means federal grant monies cannot be leveraged.

Several public health community leaders including Bob Lang, a practicing neurosurgeon and president of the Thurston/Mason Medical Society, which represents 400 doctors, and Charles Loosen, of United Communities AIDS Network (U-CAN), addressed the impact that the loss of these programs will have on the community.

Loosen said, “We’re not accustomed to having services cut that we are used to having as a community…family planning falls between vital and emergency services. Roughly half of all sexually active youth between the ages of 13 - 29 will contract a sexually transmitted infection.” Loosen encouraged the commissioners to look at Jefferson County as a model because they are accepting private insurance.

Will Stakelin, of the Olympia Master Builders, said, "The decisions you make will define your leadership....having special needs families and law enforcement come and beg for funding is unacceptable...transfer funds where available."

Commissioner Wolfe said they had thought they would make a decision on the cuts by tomorrow, but they were expecting new numbers, and would likely make a decision next week. "Our hearts are in this with you and we appreciate you being here. Together we'll get through this," said Wolfe.

Above: The Thurston County Commissioners, Sandra Romero, Cathy Wolfe and Karen Valenzuela, have big decisions to make.