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Budget cutters set sights on ferries, social services

In the face of a projected $4.6 billion state budget deficit, Bremerton services, including midday and late-night ferry runs and the Frances Haddon Morgan Center, are slated for cuts in the governor’s budget proposal. Though these proposed reductions are not final and will be decided by the Legislature in its session beginning in January, other agencies, such as the Kitsap County Health District, are forced to make immediate cuts.

NO LATE-NIGHT BOATS?

Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire released her 2011-2013 budget proposal, which includes cutting a midday roundtrip ferry run between Bremerton and Seattle and eliminating all sailings after 9:05 p.m.

The service reductions are part of a proposed $20.5 million cut to Washington State Ferries - $17.3 million of which must come out of operating costs.

“Our current level of service is not financially stable,” said David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, at a ferry community meeting in Bremerton Dec. 16. “I hate this budget for what it does to our cities and for what it does to our ferry system.”

Washington State Ferries proposed cutting the 12:20 p.m. sailing from Bremerton and the 1:30 p.m. boat from Seattle in October when the state’s Office of Financial Management asked the Department of Transportation to propose its own cuts. However, the governor’s budget cuts Bremerton ferry service deeper, while the Bainbridge Island and Kingston routes are left untouched. Lawmakers at last week’s ferry meeting pledged to prevent service cuts during the legislative session.

“We should not be negotiating where to make cuts in service,” said state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, adding that ferry communities already have less-than-ideal ferry service. “We cannot afford for the economic and cultural future for these communities to have any reductions in ferry service.”

State Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said cutting ferry runs will make it harder for Kitsap communities to recover from the recession and said he will collaborate with other lawmakers to avoid service cuts.

“This is not just a Bremerton issue or just a Kitsap County issue, this is a regional issue,” Kilmer said.

Bremerton was singled out because it is a more expensive route to operate than the others in the county, Moseley said. Whereas the fares paid at Kingston and Bainbridge Island fully cover the costs to operate those boats, Bremerton fares only cover 48 percent of the route’s operation. Cutting Kingston and Bainbridge Island service would cost the ferry system more in lost revenue than it would save in reduced service costs. Systemwide, fares cover about 70 percent of operating costs.

Bremerton residents also have the option of driving to Bainbridge Island or driving through Tacoma to reach Seattle, Moseley said, conceding that walk-on passengers would be left in a bind.

“It wasn’t picking on any particular route,” Moseley said.

Though some at the meeting told Moseley the ferry system needed to cut more administrative positions, Moseley said even cutting all administrators would not make up for the $20.5 million gap. According to budget information supplied by Washington State Ferries, management and administrative positions take up $9 million — or 2 percent — of the ferries’ $436 million budget. Vessel and terminal operations cost $341 million, or 80 percent of the budget.

“The reductions in Bremerton are hard,” Moseley said. “I certainly understand the inconvenience and disruption to lives.”

FRANCES HADDON MORGAN CLOSURE

As it did last year, the governor’s proposed budget calls for the closure of the Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton, which houses severely disabled people unable to live independently.

If the closure is approved by the Legislature, 54 autistic children and adults would have to be relocated by June 30.

Although the center’s closure was proposed by the governor last year, and was avoided, the state’s five residential habilitation centers, including the Morgan Center, took $800,000 in cuts.

Morgan Center Superintendent Carol Kirk said she’s not so sure it will escape the chopping block again this year.

“I think the reality is that this year it’s much more likely to happen,” Kirk said.

There are three options for residents if the Morgan Center does close in June, Kirk said. Some people would move to other residential habilitation centers in the state, such as Fircrest in Shoreline or Lakeland Village in Medical Lake. Others could go to a private care facility or “community-based” care, where residents can live close to their families and go to work.

There could also be another state-operated living alternative in the works, Kirk said, which would be targeted at adolescents.

Going back to their families would likely not be an option, Kirk said, because the Morgan Center was already a last resort for the residents. The average age of Morgan Center residents is about 32 or 33, making it “pretty unusual” for them to move home after living there, Kirk said.

While the governor’s budget calls for the closure of the Morgan Center by the end of this fiscal year, which ends in the summer of 2011, it also proposes shuttering another residential habilitation center, the Yakima Valley School, in the 2011-2013 budget. Collectively, the closures will save the state $2.2 million in 2011-2013 and $5 million during the 2013-2015 budget period, according to Carole Holland, senior budget assistant at the Office of Financial Management.

The Morgan Center employs 150 people, totaling 125 full-time equivalent salaries.

HEALTH DISTRICT CUTS

In response to an expected $1.45 million income shortfall in 2011, the Kitsap County Health District is eliminating five programs and 17 full-time equivalent positions, as well as reducing clinic hours at the main office in Bremerton.

The cut amounts to a 12.7 percent reduction from its $11.7 million budget, Deputy Director Scott Daniels said.

This month, the Bremerton clinic reduced immunizations and tuberculosis skin testing to Tuesday and Thursday by appointment only. Starting Jan. 3, family planning services will only be available by appointment Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The clinic will also stop providing travel immunizations when the inventory of the vaccine is used up.

The First Steps and Welcome Home Baby programs, which allow nurses, nutritionists and social workers to help pregnant women and new mothers provide a healthy start for their infants, are two of the programs being eliminated. First Steps served 1,185 women and infants in 2009, while Welcome Home Baby helped 1,108 clients the same year.

The Oral Health Program, aimed at improving dental care access for uninsured and underinsured people, will also be cut, as well as the school-based health clinic, which provided medical, mental health and health education and prevention services to adolescents in the North Kitsap School District.

The Injury Prevention Program, which works to prevent suicide, traffic fatalities and drowning accidents, will additionally be eliminated.

The district expects to cut more when the Legislature passes its 2011-2013 budget.

“We don’t know what that looks like till it’s over,” Daniels said. “We’re getting hit from all sides, really.”

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