by Minor Lile
The San Juan County Charter Review Commission continues to meet on a weekly basis. At the Feb. 10 meeting, they continued refining an initial list of topics and issues that the commissioners have identified. This list will help guide the next phase of their review of the current charter and consideration of any potential changes to it.
At its Feb. 17 meeting, commissioners agreed to form eight sub-committees to consider these and other topics that might arise as their work continues. They also heard testimony about the county’s budgeting process from County Auditor Milene Henley.
Henley was the first of several current and former public officials that are expected to meet with the commission. Arrangements have been made for County Manager Mike Thomas to appear at the Feb. 24 meeting.
Henley noted that the county budget is quite complex and that she had organized her presentation to include elements that specifically related to the charter review process. She also invited the commissioners to raise questions as the presentation progressed rather than wait until she had completed it.
Several members of the 18-person commission responded accordingly and the presentation quickly became highly interactive. As a result, Henley was frequently interrupted, and the session diverged into more of a whirlwind tour than a thorough overview of the county budget-making process. Even though the discussion went for almost a half-hour beyond the 45 minutes that had been allotted, Henley passed over nearly half of the 39 slides that she had prepared.
Henley began her remarks by noting that the most recent amendment to the county charter was overwhelmingly approved by 81% of voters in November 2019. This amendment to the charter authorized the county to move from an annual to a biennial budgeting process. The initial biennial budget was adopted in December 2019 for the 2020-2021 fiscal years. Henley shared her view that although this is the county’s first time through the biennial budgeting process, it has worked extremely well.
“I’m a big fan,” Henley said. “I think it did everything it was supposed to do and then some. With so much to do this last year (with COVID and other challenges), it was a lifesaver to not have to go through a full budgeting process.”
Henley also pointed out that San Juan County is atypical in that the charter provides for adoption and amendment of the budget by ordinance rather than resolution. According to Henley, most counties in Washington adopt their budgets by resolution. She raised the possibility that the commission might consider retaining the provision that the budget is adopted by ordinance in place but allow for later amendments to the budget by resolution, which is a simpler process that allows for public comment but does not require a public hearing.
In this early stage of the charter review process, numerous questions have arisen around the role of the county manager. One question the commission is considering is whether that position should be elected or appointed. Another is whether it would make more sense for the county manager rather than the auditor to have lead responsibility for preparing the budget.
Henley spoke to this question several times. In describing the budgeting process, she shared that there are numerous steps that require the participation of the County Auditor. According to Washington state law, it is the responsibility of the auditor (or a chief financial officer) to shepherd the process up to the point where a preliminary budget is handed over to the county council for further review, public hearings and eventual adoption. In San Juan County, there is no CFO position. A summary description of this process and the applicable provisions in state law is available at http://mrsc.org/Home/Explore-Topics/Finance/Budgets/Budget-Preparation-Procedures-for-Counties.aspx.
Henley added that “while it is easy to say that the auditor does the budget, it’s actually a budget team” that coordinates and oversees the process for the county. According to Henley, this is standard practice in most Washington counties. The San Juan County budget team is composed of the auditor, county manager, the deputy auditor and a fourth member chosen from among the directors of the various county departments. That position is currently filled by Mark Tompkins, who serves as director of both the health and community services and administrative services departments.
Commissioner Jane Fuller, Lopez, followed up on this topic later in the meeting.
“Questions have arisen as to what difference it would make whether the auditor or the county manager were responsible for creating the budget,” Fuller asked. “Given that the county manager is much more conversant with expenditures of the government and the (activities) of all the departments, what’s your take on that? Given that you’ve got a budget team and obviously you work in close collaboration, what are your thoughts on that being the responsibility of the auditor versus the county manager?”
Henley responded, “Well, a number of factors would go into that — first is that the budget is a funny thing. People think there is a lot of power or influence [involved], but mostly it is an administrative task of putting together a lot of pieces into a very difficult puzzle and trying to ensure that everybody has a chance to be heard and that you have multiple voices going into [developing it]. So yes, theoretically that could happen either place. I think the advantage of the auditor’s office being in the lead as the county is currently configured is that the county manager is pretty close to the council at this point. As an independently elected official [the auditor] is an independent voice. And it’s good to have independent voices.”
Henley then added, “I have to take some exception to saying that the county manager knows more about the expenditures of the government than the auditor because I can guarantee I know the budget back and forth better than anybody.”
Fuller thanked Henley for her answer and said that “no offense was intended” in the way she phrased the question, to which Henley replied, “I understand that. It just it made me smile inside.”
Henley was also asked about the feasibility of finding funding for any new positions or departments that the commission might recommend. She replied that from her perspective the county has limited options and that most funding sources are already fully committed. She added that is likely to continue to be the case, “unless you look to the state to try to get them to relieve some of the pressure on counties by lifting this ridiculous 1 percent-plus new construction limitation on property tax [increases]. That is our best potential long-term sustainable source of funding.
Henley, who is midway through her third term as county auditor, also indicated that she will not be running for reelection in 2022.
After the budget presentation, the commission turned its attention to finalizing a list of sub-committees that will begin meeting as the next phase of the charter review process gets underway. This discussion also consumed significantly more time than had been allotted as a handful of commissioners raised questions and offered suggestions that they felt would improve the way the sub-committees were organized. Eventually, a motion was approved forming eight sub-committees.
By this point, the meeting had gone about 15 minutes beyond the scheduled adjournment time. As a result, discussion about future town hall meetings was tabled until the next meeting on Feb. 24. The commissioners also agreed to add an additional half-hour to each of their general meetings, which will now be from 4-6:30 p.m. every Wednesday for the next several months.
Additional information about the charter review process, access to future meetings, and contact information for the CRC commissioners is available on the San Juan County website, www.sanjuanco.com/1764/Charter-Review-Commission.