Commissioners brainstorm, looking for savings

Grays Harbor County Commissioners met with department managers this week to discuss options for saving the county money, options like combining the public and environmental health departments, outsourcing the juvenile detention center, and what to do when administrators retire. The commissioners held the workshop to ask department managers if they had any ideas for ways to save money, and to give managers a heads up about any ideas that were already being considered.

“The purpose of this meeting is just to bring ideas forward,” said Commission Chair Vickie Raines. “You might not like the ideas, and that’s fine.”

Last June, the county considered reductions to cover a budget deficit of over $2 million, reporting that general fund revenues were down by 4.5% and spending was up by about 6.7%. The decision was made last year to delay hiring to fill vacancies in order to shore up the budget.

“The best way to do things is to make sure that your staff and others don’t hear things through the grapevine, on social media, in the paper and other things,” said Raines. “There’s been some discussion by those on the commission of doing some restructuring of county positions. And, if I’m not speaking out of turn, our goal is to restructure to create cohesive and strong staff levels and see where we could cut costs to reduce the deficit that we have.”

With the recently-announced resignation of the health department’s Deputy Director Beth Mizushima, the commissioners discussed the idea of combining the public and environmental health departments. “I think that Jeff Nelson has been with the county for quite some time. And I believe that he and Mark Cox could do some pretty impressive things,” said Raines in support. She noted how the two departments have worked so close during the pandemic.

The public health and social services department manages many aspects of the county including birth and death certificates, family planning, suicide prevention, vaccines, health, developmental disabilities, food & nutrition, diseases & conditions, homelessness, and parenting just to name a few.

The environmental health division is a regulatory agency that works to ensure a healthy and safe environment through monitoring, regulating, and educating the community in safe food, drinking water, water recreational facilities, vector surveillance, and liquid and solid waste disposal.

During the height of the pandemic, and even today, the agencies are working closely together to ensure that everyone in the county is educated, tested, and vaccinated from COVID-19.

Jeff Nelson, Environmental Health Director said one of his concerns is where the combined department would be located. Currently, his department is on the 3rd floor of the Grays Harbor County Administration Building in Montesano. “Having us interface directly with planning and building (department) right now is almost essential in terms of being efficient on addressing some of the land development issues that come up that involve environmental health.” It was also noted that no one was planning a wholesale move of any department from one location to another.

While Raines also noted that the discussion Monday was not about departments outside of the commissioners purview, “this isn’t about the courts, (or) the courthouse,” Raines did go on to explain some cost-saving measures being considered, such as outsourcing the juvenile detention center. The superior court oversees the juvenile detention, Raines said, “I’m grateful to have the support of Judge David Edwards,moving forward to look at what the options are to contract for services.” She said the county spends “an awful lot of money” to house an average of nine individuals, adding “that includes the contracts that we have with the Quinault Indian Nation and Pacific County to hold their youth.” Raines said during an interview after the meeting that such a move would not be completed by the end of the year and has not been discussed at length with current staff at the facility.

Federal CARES Act money last year indirectly helped the county for 2020 by bolstering sales tax and supporting its small businesses. But with more support expected, administrators need help to distribute those funds. “It took our department about six months to get through that process to give out those small business loans,” said Mark Cox, Director of Utilities & Community Development. He discussed the potential impact of millions of dollars coming to the Harbor from the American Recovery Act of 2021. “It’s going to add a lot of additional work to multiple departments throughout the county.” Cox suggested that those funds could support infrastructure projects for roads, and bridges and that the health department, “is going to get inundated with different projects where money is going to be available for mental health or substance abuse, child care programs, a number of other activities, including COVID relief.”

For now it appears the only sure thing is that “nothing is in stone,” Commissioners Kevin Pine and Jill Warne noted multiple times during the special meeting Monday afternoon.