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A critical election for King County

Fred Jarrett Credit: Photo: King County

While coming in third in a top-two primary for King County Executive is not where I hoped to end up, I am nonetheless proud of our campaign and the way it contributed to the public debate. I approached the campaign with the belief that voters want answers and that candidates can engage citizens in a serious and substantive discussion of important issues — particularly this year for King County.

The general election campaign between Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison offers voters a once-in-a-decade opportunity to re-engineer county government and make it the kind of regional partner it was intended to be. But taking advantage of this opportunity will require a commitment from both candidates to describe their visions for county government and tell us how they will address key issues once they take office. And it will be incumbent on voters and the media to hold the candidates accountable for addressing those issues. This opportunity will be lost if we allow the campaign to degenerate into a contest of personalities or partisan positioning. There is far too much at stake.

That King County faces a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions is a well-accepted fact. Each week brings news of park closures, employee furloughs, layoffs, service reductions, and ever-deepening deficits. The budget problems are real and here to stay until county leadership makes the tough decisions needed to get the government back on track.

Last week a report to the County Council described how the county’s spending problems go well beyond the general fund. Transit, water quality, development and environmental services, roads, and public health all face similar or worse deficits. As Rahm Emanuel has pointed out, it would be a shame to let a good crisis go to waste. The county clearly faces a “good” crisis. And, the County Executive campaign provides an opportunity for a public debate about the future path for the county.

Both candidates need to explain exactly how they intend to get the budget under control — not stop-gap measure like employee furloughs or temporary across-the-board budget reductions, but real structural reform that focuses on efficient delivery of basic government services. How do we move from a focus on how much we spend on programs (input) to what those programs actually deliver (measuring output)?

This debate must also speak to a vision for the future of King County. How can the next Executive make the county’s role one which is both rational (and fiscally sustainable) and one which adds value to the entire region? This will require transforming the county from the opaque mixture of urban, rural, and regional services to a new model. The candidates need to articulate what this transformed county will look like. What services will be continued? Discontinued? How will the county partner with local governments, both general purpose (cities) and special purpose (water and sewer districts) to meet the needs of all our neighbors?

And how will the county partner with cities and the state Legislature to accelerate the annexation of the “unincorporated islands” within our urban growth boundary? Resolving these annexations will be central to rationalizing municipal service delivery.

Lastly, Metro Transit, which is run by the county. The fiscal crisis facing that agency will force decisions that will have a profound impact on our region for many years to come. How can Metro handle the loss of sales tax revenue most gracefully, and in a way laying the foundation for future growth of public transit? How can these strategies be used to shape the development of the region? How do we accommodate the expected 1.4 million new neighbors in the next 30 years?

Central Puget Sound faces serious but surmountable challenges. King County ought to play a key role in defining what this region will look like in the future. This is the debate voters need to hear from our county executive candidates.

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