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County Charter: What will it really cost?

Voters’ pamphlets for the Feb. 5 election on a proposed new Kitsap County Charter should begin arriving in area homes this week.

But those pamphlets won’t include information on how much the proposed change in government form might cost.

Kitsap County Auditor Karen Flynn had planned to include pro/con fiscal impact statements in the voters’ pamphlets.

Because of various objections and the need to get the pamphlets out soon for the all-mail election, the Auditor’s Office removed the fiscal statements.

County Administrator Malcolm Fleming estimated that charter government could cost $848,000 in 2003, and $723,000 per year after. A freeholder committee estimated charter would cost $449,000 in its first year, a tally which didn’t include possible election expenses.

Jim Martin, a former freeholder and chair of the pro-charter Citizens for Better Representation, objects to both estimates.

He called Fleming’s estimate “inaccurate” and “trumped-up ... we consider the administrator the opposition” to the charter.

Even the freeholders’ own cost estimate, prepared by a committee led by county Assessor Jim Avery and Treasurer Sharon Shrader, was insufficient, Martin said.

HOW MUCH?

Charter opponents believe the new form of government will lead to increased staff, facilities and elections costs. To cover those expenses, charter opponents believe elected officials would have to either raise taxes or cut services.

Former freeholder Sherry Appleton thinks even Fleming’s $850,000 estimate was conservative. The charter would replace the existing three county commissioners with a five-member council, and create a new county executive. Appleton said costs will follow.

“In government, when you enlarge it, you have to have office space, support personnel, all the things that go with it,” Appleton said.

The freeholders tried to keep costs down by giving the new executive the same pay as Fleming’s administrator salary; and by setting the five council members’ annual salaries at $52,000 each (the five council members combined would earn the same as the current three commissioners).

STAFF COSTS

But to maintain separation of powers, the council and executive likely would need separate staffs.

“It stands to reason that if you go from three commissioners to five council persons, you’ll have to increase the staff,” Appleton said. “If you’re going to have separation of powers, you have to have separation of staffs.”

Hamilton and Martin argued that the county already has sufficient staff.

“We anticipate there will be internal promotions or shift of responsibilities,” Hamilton said. “The actual total cost impact will not be significant at all. We might be talking about $100,000 the first year.”

Jim Sharpe, a Silverdale Democrat against the charter, said office space and computers alone will cost more than that.

“Legislatures always try to increase power over executives, executives always try to increase power over legislatures,” Sharpe said. “That always leads to more staff.”

ELECTIONS

The charter also would rework the timing of county elections, which opponents say will cost more.

Council members and other county officials would be elected in odd-numbered years — the prosecuting attorney and county executive in even-numbered years.

That means the county would be responsible for conducting elections every year, instead of every two years under the current system.

The county Auditor’s Office already conducts elections during odd-numbered years — for state initiatives, school district levies, city elections and junior taxing districts. But the state, schools, cities and junior taxing districts are billed for those election costs.

Fleming’s Oct. 12 memo on possible charter costs estimates that conducting county elections in odd-numbered years would cost $150,000-$200,000 per election.

Although odd-year elections might dent the county general fund, Hamilton said county taxpayers wouldn’t notice.

“The elections staff gets paid whether they’re doing an election or not. Now the problem is what pocket it comes out of,” he said.

OR WILL IT SAVE MONEY?

Despite the competing cost estimates, charter proponents remain convinced the government reform will save money.

The charter calls for a two-year budgeting process and grants new powers of initiative. Martin said those provisions would serve as a “moderating influence” against county budget increases.

Hamilton said separating powers would bring more scrutiny into the budget process, because the county budget would be prepared by the executive and approved by the council — separate entities. Currently, the county commissioners oversee both preparation and approval of the budget.

Ultimately, Hamilton said, cost isn’t “a function of charter. It’s a function of who you elect.”

Opponents, however, argue that charter government will be inherently more expensive.

“Structure-wise, there has to be more costs,” Sharpe said. “Are you going to have three computers used by five people, or are you going to have five computers? Are you going to have three offices used by five people, or are you going to have five offices?”

If costs go up, Sharpe said, the county will be forced either to increase taxes or cut services.

Charter backers respond that even worst-case scenario increases are just a fraction of the county’s budget.

“I know in my heart we’re going to save money,” Martin said. “Even if it didn’t, what are all the rights the citizens don’t have now, rights of initiative, what are those worth?”

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