Agency assumes food assistance program; state employees will lose pay
By STEVE BROWN
The Washington State Department of Agriculture will see more money in its budget for the next biennium, primarily because the agency assumed responsibility for the state's food assistance program.
The department took over the program midway through the previous biennium, Jason Kelly, communications director for the agency, said. The program constitutes $10.6 million of the WSDA's new $147.5 million budget. About 79 percent of the budget comes from fees and state and federal sources while the reminder comes from the state general fund.
The department received $128.4 million during the last biennium.
"The program provides hundreds of thousands of meals through food banks and other food programs," he said.
Other programs under the WSDA saw major impacts.
Funding to county weed boards was cut in half, and other State Weed Board support was also reduced. The Weights and Measures Division saw its general fund support eliminated altogether, reflecting the program's shift to fee-supported inspections. Support was also eliminated from the Domestic Marketing Division.
"WSDA was fortunate in that other than the elimination of our domestic marketing programs, no other major program areas were eliminated," Kelly said. "The upshot for the budget is that we will not see a dramatic reduction in our agency programs that you will find in other areas of state government."
The state's agricultural fairs took a glancing blow from the cuts. The fair fund for the next biennium is about $1.8 million per year.
"That is a decrease of $250,000 per year, but considering the cuts made to other programs and the original budget proposals, it is very good news," fair spokeswoman Heather Hansen said.
The capital budget included $1 million for health and safety grants for county fairs.
"That is more than double what has been received in the past," she said. That money could go toward fairgrounds' plumbing, electrical, access, lighting and fencing projects.
Fair managers said they were grateful the fair fund survived largely intact. The effect on their operation depends on how big a role state support plays.
At the Cowlitz County Fair, coordinator Kathi Mattinen said the $40,000 coming from the state represents about 18 percent of her fair's budget.
"Most of that goes to premiums to exhibitors," she said. "Other items on the budget include advertising, setting up and security."
Admission is free at the Cowlitz fair, "so we pay close attention to expenses. Once we gave up that, we really came to depend on state funding."
Now, getting 87 percent of what used to come from the state, "We're not sure how this will affect us."
The much-larger Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden should see little effect from the reduced aid, manager Jim Baron said.
"That cutback is minimal compared to earlier conversations. We had a lot of uncertainty earlier and had to make some adjustments in response to that," he said.
Baron said money from the WSDA Fair Fund represents about 3 percent of his fair's budget.
Like other state employees, WSDA staff members will take a 3 percent pay cut each of the next two years.
"No employee at WSDA will not receive the pay cut, plus we'll be paying more of our health premiums," Kelly said. "They're up 25 percent."
The salary cut mandated by the state budget that came out of the 2011 Legislature exempts full-time workers earning less than $2,500 a month. They will receive a step increase of up to 2.5 percent.