By Tony Lystra, February 5, 2014, Longview Daily News
During Tuesday’s “State of the County” address, Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber blasted state officials for failing to fund infrastructure programs to boost the county’s economy while pouring money into social services. The Legislature, he said, is treating Cowlitz County “as some poor, needy stepchild.”
Tuesday’s presentation, which gave each of the three commissioners a chance to speak, focused largely on the county’s efforts to balance its budget and create efficiencies through technology. But it was Weber’s remarks that stood out for their stark portrayal of the economic problems facing the county and what he viewed as Olympia’s failure to help local government address them.
During his portion of the program, Weber noted that only recently has the county’s unemployment rate dropped to a still staggeringly high 9 percent — and that’s largely because “our friends and neighbors have given up looking for work.” Weber also mentioned that the state is expected to increase its spending on social and health services in Cowlitz County to $23 million by 2015, not including state-run welfare, Medicaid and food stamp programs. The figure, he said, represents nearly double what the state spent on social services in 2010.
Weber said he was a firm supporter of safety net programs, but said the state needs to invest in Cowlitz County’s roads, rails and ports to cut the rate of poverty.
“When Olympia finds it easier to double the amount of spending on social services than helping us with job-creating infrastructure needs, it suggests the wrong priorities in Olympia,” Weber said, reading from prepared remarks. “I hope you share my irritation at watching Cowlitz County being treated as some poor, needy stepchild by the state.”
Much of the address, though, focused on commissioners’ efforts to balance its budget last year.
“2013 was a difficult year for the county,” Commission Chairman Mike Karnofski said during his portion the presentation.
The county faced a $4 million general fund budget deficit and eliminated 13.25 full-time county jobs. In order to balance the $43 million general fund budget, commissioners also slashed the jail’s work-release program and closed the old jail on the third floor of the Hall of Justice; handed control of several parks to other agencies and deployed a number of new technologies with the hope of creating efficiencies.
Among those new technologies: Online permitting for the building and planning department, a paperless district court records system; a new 911 dispatch program and an online jury selection system.
Commissioners said purchasing the new systems was their best shot at becoming more efficient so the county government could continue to provide services for less money.
The cost-saving measures come as the county, which was hammered by the global recession, continues a slow, uneven recovery.
Karnofski said that the county has invested money earmarked for economic development in the Port of Kalama, Port of Woodland, Kelso airport, a new visitors center and electrical services along Spirit Lake Highway. He emphasized that more investment was needed in rail lines and roads to get the economy moving again.
Karnofski noted signs of improvement in the local economy. As an example, he said, the value of construction as a result of building permits was $65 million in 2013, more than double the $31 million in permitted construction work in 2012.
Karnofski also mentioned last month’s announcement from Northwest Innovation Works that it intends to build a methanol export plant at the Port of Kalama (and another in Columbia County) and said Cowlitz County needs to streamline its permit process to accommodate this and similar projects that create jobs.