San Juan County Council backs off on combining auditor, treasurer — for now

An attention grabber? You bet.

But in the end, the San Juan County Council backed away from charting a course that might lead to the possible elimination of one or two of its fellow elected officials.

On Tuesday, the council agreed that combining the auditor and treasurer's offices — and allowing the consolidated department to be managed by one elected official rather than two — is an idea worthy of further examination. However, a majority of council members agreed that it also would be premature to pursue such an idea, at least for now.

Councilman Howie Rosenfeld, Friday Harbor, thought otherwise. Rosenfeld, a member of the council's budget subcommittee, which floated the idea before the full council, said the county must find ways to do more with less given the "fiscal crisis" it faces. The latest financial forecast shows a projected $550,000 deficit in the county general fund in the year ahead and, without a sharp rise in revenue or drop in expenses, that fund possibly running out of money by mid-2012.

"From what we've been hearing, it's not going to get better anytime soon, and it may get worse."

Offered up as a cost-cutting move that might also prompt greater efficiency among financial departments, Council Chairman Richard Fralick, also a member of the budget subcommittee, noted such a move would require an amendment to the county charter and voter approval in a general election. Fralick said Tuesday's meeting was the last chance the council would have to turn the idea into proposed legislation and put in on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The auditor's office has 12 full-time employees and budgeted expenses of $730,556 in 2010. The treasurer's office, which consists of four full-time employees, is budgeted to spend $355,944 this year.

Fralick said a state study, provided to the council by Assessor Charles Zalmanek, shows counties that have consolidated their financial departments have had mixed results in reducing expenses. The study reveals that larger counties tend to benefit more often than those with populations similar in size to San Juan, he said.

Councilwoman Lovel Pratt, also a budget subcommittee member, said the savings achieved by eliminating one elected official would be insignificant. She also noted a lack of "broad-based support" for the idea, and advocated that the pros and cons of consolidation be evaluated instead in light of information gather by the charter review committee, which will form next year.

"It think it's good we're looking at this," Pratt said. "But I feel the time isn't right."

Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said elected positions have been eliminated in other counties that operate under a home-rule charter. In several instances, an elected position was eliminated before the term of the person holding that office had expired.

Still, Gaylord said it would be best to have a transition plan in place before any elected position is eliminated.

"I think it is appropriate to look at this," Councilman Rich Peterson said. "But I think we're too far into the year to get a transition plan and get something on the ballot."

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