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Budget Preparation Procedures for Counties

This is a step-by-step overview of the required budget procedures for counties in Washington State along with tips and recommendations to assist with the process. For specific deadline dates related to the budget process, see the county budget calendar.

Statutory References

The budget requirements for counties are listed in chapter 36.40 RCW. The chapter provides for an alternative budget adoption process under RCW 36.40.071 that sets the final budget hearing in December.

Additionally, RCW 36.40.250 provides for a biennial budget option. Thus far, only a small percentage of counties are using the two-year budget process. During a biennial budgeting year, the same dates and procedures are used as the annual budget process. Counties using the biennial budget process must also complete a mid-biennium review and modification which must be completed prior to the beginning of the second year of the biennium.

The following procedures outline both the statutory deadline and alternative dates for the county budget process.

1. County Auditor or CFO Requests Revenue and Expenditure Estimates (Call to Budget)

Statutory Deadline: On or before the second Monday in July (if the alternative budget setting (RCW 36.40.071) process has been selected, this date can be altered to conform).

The county auditor, or chief financial officer (CFO) in a charter county, notifies in writing each county official, elective or appointive, that is in charge of an office, department, service, or institution of the county, to prepare detailed and itemized estimates of the probable revenue from sources other than taxation, and of all expenditures required for the ensuing fiscal year (RCW 36.40.010).

The county auditor or CFO prepares the estimates for interest and debt redemption requirements and all other estimates which properly fall within the duties of her office (RCW 36.40.030).

TIP: Budget proposals are made up of estimates and predictions about the future that are often based on historical data and trends. Historical sales tax and property tax data can be obtained by going to the state Department of Revenue website or by going to the Local Government Financial Reporting System maintained by the State Auditor’s Office. To help with evaluating the data, the GFOA provides guidance in the form of best practice articles such as “Financial Forecasting in the Budget Preparation Process."

2. Estimates are filed with County Auditor or CFO

Statutory Deadline: On or before the second Monday in August (if the alternative budget setting process has been selected, this date can be altered to conform).

Within 30 days of the call to budget all county officials solicited in Item 1 above must file estimates of revenue and expenditures for their programs and/or departments (RCW 36.40.010).

The county commissioners must submit to the auditor a detailed statement, prepared by the conty road engineer or special projects engineer, of all new road and bridge construction to be financed from the county road fund and/or from bond issues. This statement must also include estimates for the road and bridge maintenance program (RCW 36.40.020).

TIP: A uniform budget information form for officials to provide estimates consistent with objectives will assist with the budget content desired (RCW 36.40.030).

3. Preliminary Budget Prepared by County Auditor or CFO 

Statutory Deadline: Immediately following the receipt of estimates of revenues and expenditures from county officials (see Item 2).

Upon receipt of estimates the county auditor or CFO must prepare the preliminary county budget setting forth the complete financial program, showing the expenditure program and the sources of revenue by which it is to be financed (RCW 36.40.040). The statute requires that the revenue and expenditure sections of the preliminary budget document be presented for each office, department, or service in a format that displays budget projections; current year revenues and expenditures (including contracts and obligations against current appropriations) for the first six months; current year appropriations; and last year’s expenditures. The revenue section must include the amount to be raised from taxation and the estimated surplus at the close of the current fiscal year.

Sample Format

  Last Year's Actuals Current Year Budget (Expenditures) Current Year Actuals 06/30/XX Budget Proposal
Department Revenue $750,000.00   $425,000.00 $800,000.00
Department Expenditures $749,000.00 $775,000.00 $450,000.00 $800,000.00

4. Preliminary Budget Filed with County Commissioners

Statutory Deadline: On or before the first Tuesday in September of each year (if the alternative budget setting process has been selected, this date can be altered to conform) the budget must be submitted by the auditor or CFO (RCW 36.40.050).

The board of commissioners shall consider the preliminary budget, making any revisions or additions it deems advisable.

TIP: Preparing a balanced budget is one of the most challenging tasks. Articles such as The Economy is Better – So Why is My Budget So Hard to Balance? by Redmond Finance Director Mike Bailey,  and Achieving a Structurally Balanced Budget a GFOA Best Practice guide, will provide some insight to assist with the preparation.

5. Public Hearing on Amount to Be Raised by Property Taxes 

Statutory Deadline: On or before November 30.

All taxing districts that collect regular levies must hold a public hearing on revenue sources for the coming year’s budget, including consideration of possible increases in property tax revenues (RCW 84.55.120).

TIP: The county board of commissioners must set by ordinance/or resolution the amount to be raised by the property tax. If the county wants to increase its levy amount as allowed by law or bank its levy capacity, the legislative body must adopt a resolution/ordinance stating the increase in terms of both dollars and percentage. If the percentage is less than the lawful limit the remainder will be banked unless the Implicit Price Deflator (IPD) is lower than 1%. For more, see Property Tax in Washington State.

6. Public Notice of Budget Hearings

Statutory Deadline: Not later than two weeks immediately preceding the first Monday in October (approximate timeline is mid-September) or if the alternative budget setting process has been selected, no later than two weeks immediately preceding the first Monday in December (approximate timeline is mid-November).

The county commissioners must publish a notice that it has completed the preliminary budget and that it will meet on the first Monday in October (or December if the alternative adoption method has been selected) for the purpose of fixing the final budget and making tax levies. The notice must be published once a week for two consecutive weeks immediately following adoption of the preliminary budget in the official newspaper of the county (RCW 36.40.060).

TIP: Public notice is required for each public hearing that must be held during the budget process. A public hearing and notice will be required for the setting of property taxes under RCW 84.55.120 as well as the final hearing requirement found in RCW 36.40.070.

7. Budget Available to Public 

Statutory Deadline: No later than two weeks immediately preceding the final budget hearing which is set for either the first Monday in October or December depending upon the budget dates selected by the county commissioners (RCW 36.40.060 or 36.40.071).

TIP: There are many different ways of communicating budget information. While the full budget document may be useful for the legislative body, simpler, more engaging versions that balance text and numbers with simple graphs, are a better way of helping the public understand the budget story. Budget-At-A-Glance documents are a popular tool that cities and towns use. Recently, some cities have started experimenting with online budget portals. See our Communicating About Government Spending for ideas and examples.

8. Public Hearings on Budget 

Statutory Deadlines: Final budget hearing must be on the first Monday in October (or alternate date, the first Monday in December) and may be continued from day to day but not to exceed a total of five days (RCW 36.40.070 or 36.40.071).

TIP: The number of public hearings held during the budget process may vary depending upon local policy, or procedure. At a minimum there should be two hearings, as reflected above. See our tips for a successful public hearing for more information.

9. Budget Adopted

Statutory Deadline: Upon conclusion of the budget hearing. The budget must be adopted prior to the beginning of the next fiscal period.

County legislative authority shall adopt the budget by resolution and enter the same in the official minutes of the board (RCW 36.40.080).

TIP: The budget resolution or ordinance can take on many forms depending upon whether the county adopts at the office, department, or program level, and whether it includes ending fund balance or displays appropriations separately from ending fund balance. The budget resolution format adopted should be consistent with the detailed budget document approved by the legislative body.

10. Final Budget Sent to SAO

Statutory Deadline: None, but recommend immediately following adoption of the final budget.

The final adopted budget should be transmitted to the State Auditor’s Office (SAO) via email to  with a link to the budget document (if you post on your website), or as an attachment (PDF preferred). Be sure to include the county name and the word “budget” in the subject line (RCW 36.40.080).

Last Modified: December 30, 2015