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King County's running out of cuts

A tax-averse lawmaker comes to a surprising conclusion: time to find new revenue for King County. Will Olympia listen?
King County is closing down its animal control unit

King County is closing down its animal control unit King County

I have spent the bulk of my career opposing higher taxes and increased spending. In the Legislature I voted against Governor Mike Lowry’s 1993 budget and tax increases. On the King County Council I voted against two budgets because they increased spending and raised property taxes — budgets written by my fellow Republicans while we were in the majority. During all of my 11 years in elected office I served on the budget writing committee, and every year I listened to Democratic governors and county executives talk about tight budgets, while revenues and spending went up and up.

As a fiscal conservative, therefore, I hope I can say this with some credibility: King County really does have a revenue problem. In fact, it is closer to a revenue crisis. (Disclosure moment: I am a public affairs consultant and one of my clients is the King County Corrections Guild, which has a big stake in the county's budget.)

Dino Rossi, who twice ran as a Republican candidate for governor, tells a great story about “Olympia cuts.” Imagine your son or daughter asks you for a $10 per week allowance. You say, no, but I will give you $5 per week. Your child then complains that their allowance has been cut 50 percent. That’s an Olympia cut — a decrease in a requested increase.

But these aren’t Olympia cuts they’re dealing with in the county courthouse They're the real thing. The 2010 budget transmitted to the council by Executive Kurt Triplett last Monday anticipates less general fund revenue for King County in 2010 than in 2009, which comes on top of a reduction in revenue in 2009 compared to 2008. King County’s revenues, and services, are shrinking.

King County will actually spend close to $5 billion next year, but the overwhelming majority of that revenue is legally dedicated to specific programs, such as transit, waste water, unincorporated roads, and solid waste. The crisis is in the general fund, which pays for criminal justice, parks, human services, and general government. King County’s general fund spent $654 million in 2008. That fell to $641 million this year, and is anticipated to drop to $622 million next year. General fund spending is dropping 5 percent, while inflation and health care costs continue to rise. The county estimates that revenues will rise slightly in 2011 and be back up to $647 million in 2012 — significantly less than the 2008 level.

King County’s two main sources of general fund revenue are the sales tax and the property tax. Sales tax revenues have been hammered by the recession, down 10 percent since 2008. Property tax revenues are derived from the general levy, plus revenue from new construction. Needless to say, there hasn’t been much new construction lately. The property tax levy was once allowed to grow 6 percent per year, then was capped at a factor of inflation plus population by Referendum 47, and then reduced again to 1 percent per year by Initiative 747 in 2001. The result is the county’s largest source of general fund revenue has gone from an annual growth rate of 6-8 percent during the 1990s, to less than 2 percednt now.

What do all these numbers mean to real people? In 2009 the county laid off prosecutors and police, and again delayed a decision on new jail capacity. Jail populations have fallen, while violent crime is up 22 percent in Seattle. For next year, Triplett is proposing modest cuts to criminal justice, but closing 39 county parks, eliminating the animal control program, and slashing county assistance to community-based human service agencies. Even with these cuts, to maintain a status quo county budget in 2011 will require $54 million in cuts in 2011, and another $88 million in cuts in 2012. Triplett warns that cuts of that magnitude would lead to “the dismantling of criminal justices and public health services.”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Ah, you're a "consultant" now and believe we must raise taxes. I see. And how much do you stand to make if we take your advice? Personally, I believe "consultants" should be vilified. Their (your) current business model is to promote ineptitude in government. One could characterize it as a slow-motion terrorism. Any idea how much of King County's "budget" - that which you say MUST be raised - goes to consultants?

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I commend you for trying to lay out some of the facts and circumstances facing King County government. It is not a pretty picture and a difficult one to try to find answers to.

Unfortunately as you note, Tim Eyman's Initiative 1033 is not the answer but will make things worse. Yet it has support because people buy Eyman's simplistic answers that don't look at the reality of what is happening on the ground. I-1033 proposes to freeze the budgets at this year's recession level not just at the state level but also for all 39 counties and 281 cities.

This one size fits all approach is a recipe for disaster. I-1033 removes local control of our budgets by changing the way we've governed since our state was formed. Eyman proposes budgeting by referendum instead of having our locally elected officials decide the best public use of funds over his recession level limits.

California is an excellent example of the problems that turning over budgets to the repeated referendum process causes. Why would we want to become like California?

Supposedly one reason is that our real estate taxes are obscene and out of control says Eyman. Yet they are already limited compared to other states by the 1% increase per year limit. We rank 25th out of the 50 states in terms of real estate taxes per capita according to the conservative Tax Foundation and our overall state and local tax burden is in the bottom third of states at 35th.

But Eyman's mantra is basically that the lower your taxes are the better off we are. Unfortunately there is no free lunch. You get what you pay for. And Eyman's 1033 provides voters with a clear choice.

Eyman says it's more important for taxpayers to use the money above his recession level limit for only one purpose - to pay property taxes for wealthy property owners. That's the choice because the rebate Eyman proposes is not based on the amount of sales taxes you pay but on the amount of property you own. The more property you own the more you get back.

Tough luck for renters. Some 35% of households in the state are not owner occupied according to the US Census Bureau. You'll still pay the same sales taxes and other fees but you'll both see no tax rebate or restored or new public services.

That's because Tim says its more important to pay property taxes for corporations and shopping malls and real estate developers and on people's McMansions and second homes than it is to fund public services - like police and fire protection and courts and jails and keeping parks and libraries open and educating our children and supporting out colleges and universities and fixing roads and bridges and yes even fixing levies in South King County.

What a grand vision Tim Eyman has for what our local governments should be doing - collecting sales tax dollars from everyone, including people who don't own property and using it only to pay property taxes for those with property. It a reverse Robin Hood wealth transfer scheme.

Forget public services. Property owners will be better off with a few extra dollars in their pockets. They can fix their own roads and hire their own police and fire protection and hire people to educate their kids and buy their own neighborhood park and set up their own neighborhood library.

But wait a minute, isn't that what we have now with everyone chipping in their tax dollars, like property taxes based on what one owns and paying sales taxes, and electing local representatives to prepare budgets and raise revenue to provide services the public wants?

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Isn't it precisely when you run out of green that government can be restructured, rather than just trimmed? Chris has had to deal with government inefficiency at both the state and county level for years. I think he could pen a compelling essay on how he would change the structure and incentives of government to make it more productive.

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Someday, somehow, with all these revenue shortfalls everywhere, you just might begin to ponder how to get the Port of Seattle to start paying you instead of you paying it.

But I'm sure it's not that simple.

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

One minor clarification:

Like any "journalist," I wrote the piece, but not the headline. The headline says we need "higher taxes." Not exactly what I said. I suggested that a new funding model was needed for large urban counties. That model could include higher taxes, or it could consist of letting King County keep a larger share of the sales, property, or B&O; taxes generated in King County, rather than raising taxes.

The point is, the county is running out of revenue to fund basic criminal justice services. This is a structural problem that needs to be addressed.

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 4:44 p.m. Inappropriate

You sure it's not a spending problem? It seems to me that as areas (and population) that the County is responsible for decline, spending should decline as well. Instead, over the past decade or so, as a dozen or so cities incorporated (and the County ceased providing services) staff actually grew by about a third.

I sure would love to see a graph of King County spending by year, overlaid with population served by the county and total County revenues. If spending is in line or below population served and total revenues we might have a revenue issue - but if not . . .

Abunai

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 6:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Abunai,

Yes, when the unincorporated area shrinks the county can spend less on police and parks. But incorporations and annexations don't affect other regional services, such as courts, jails, and elections.

The big change has been the drop in revenue.

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 6:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Is the revenue equivalent to, say 2006 or 2007, or is it below that? I can't find any specific data on the King County site - there don't seem to seem to be any annual summaries.

Rationally, it's hard to believe the County is being prudent with spending when staff increases so dramatically while unincorporated area shrinks.

Abunai

Posted Tue, Oct 6, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

"Staff?". Eighty two percent of King County's general fund employees are public safety personnel. Police, prosecutors, corrections officers, judges, bailiffs, etc. That is who we are talking about, not bureaucrats.

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 4:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe if the Executive wasn't granting pay increase contracts like the ones it gave the Sheriffs this year of 5% and an additional $1,500 year in healthcare benefits, things wouldn't be so tight. County court services costs are driving cities away from using the county and toward joining alternative facilities like Issaquah. For jail services, Yakima.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Again, how does the spending increase correlate to workload? Back in the day I worked with OMB in DC, so am pretty aware of how the games work - talk about cutting corrections, police, the Washington Monument. Ignore programs and spending with less public support.

Until the County honestly justifies its spending and the growth of spending we'll have a lot of citizens that assume the worst.

Abunai

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

The only significant workload change that results from an incorporation is fewer police patrols in the area, and fewer misdemeanants in the jail. The recent incorporations have not been large enough to make a real difference.

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 1:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Just reread the article - so the general fund, which covers courts and police, will spend $622 million, or about 12% of the total budget. Meanwhile, 88% of the budget is 'legally dedicated' to specific programs? Uh, okay...

I get it! Lets get everybody excited about 'necessary' cuts to the 12% of the budget spent on the County's PRIMARY responsibility. Meanwhile, the other 88% is 'legally dedicated' and can't be touched. Nothing to see here, just move along...

Ridiculous. IF 88% of the spending is 'legally dedicated' it sounds like it's about time to revisit the law(s) 'legally dedicating' the funds. That way, we can have a real conversation about what the County REALLY spends our money on.

Abunai

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 2:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Abunai,

Sewer rate dollars must be spent to run the sewer system.

Bus fares, a portion of the sales tax, and federal transportation dollars must be spent on transit.

State law gives the county a special property tax levy in the unincorporated areas in order fund roads in the unincorporated areas.

Revenues generated by the solid waste system are legally required to be reinvested in the solid waste system.

And so on.

The general fund is the only part of King County's budget over which the Council has full discretion, and 76% of that goes to law enforcement.

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

So what about those raises and the compensation package the "executives" negotiating team came up with last time for the Sheriffs Chris? 5% a year in this economy? You probaly cannot say because you are their representative right? Well who else is getting that kind of raise these days? Especially in the private sector.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Oct 7, 8:11 p.m. Inappropriate

I represent the Corrections Officers, not the Sheriff's deputies. Cutting the pay of police officers is not realistic, and wouldn't yield nearly enough money to fill the revenue gap.

Posted Thu, Oct 8, 6:31 a.m. Inappropriate

So 5% increases in salary year over year and an additional $1,500 per officer increase in benefits is reasonable in this environment? No other unions will use it to justify their demands?

At some point when you find yourself in the bottom of a budgetary hole, you should really stop digging.

Cameron

Posted Thu, Oct 8, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I am not an expert on that contract, but you have to remember this: law enforcement officers have binding arbitration. Under that process King County has no choice other than to keep their compensation levels competitive with other large, urban, west coast counties. If they don't, an arbitrator will.

Posted Thu, Oct 8, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

I guess that's why they are laying off people. Keep feeding the alligator those who are lower on the seniority list and hope that you are the last one to be consumed.

Cameron

Posted Sat, Oct 10, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Re comment by Carlson: If Vance could "pen" (why not say "write"?) such an essay on how to achieve structural change, why didn't he? Or maybe he doesn't want to give it away for free, since he's a paid consultant.

sarah

Posted Sun, Oct 11, 11:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I do believe you have some credibility, Chris, as you've gotten far less partisan since you've left elective office. Your arguments/case is sound. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this.

bricsa

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

As usual, the more distant an anonymous writer is from having to actually deal with a problem on a daily, real-world basis, the more absolutely sure he/she is in his/her conviction that he/she is absolutely right and the person who actually has to make decisions and implement them is morally bankrupt and utterly incompetent.

...and John Carlson, you've made a nice living over the years by criticizing those who actually do the work without having to offer substantive, concrete alternatives, implement them, and live with them on a daily basis. Government is not part of the entertainment industry.

"Productivity" is not the Holy Word of government. When many government functions at all levels were privatized starting under Reagan under the mantra of "productivity", "effiency", and "running the government like a business", we've seen that indeed government WAS changed to run like a business: workers were already about as "productive" as they could from a functional standpoint. The only way to make workers more "productive" was to privitize the task and pay the workers less. Since the same work is done at a lower cost VIOLA!, higher "productivity."

Oh, yeah, and then there was the profits raked off the top, certainly not off the bottom.

Goforride

Posted Thu, Oct 15, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, there is one thought I have long held... when folks incorporate, the county loses that revenue. But most small cities do not pick up the other parts of expenses... In short, if Newcastle wants to be a city, fine and well... they should now be responsible for police, fire, parks, and judicial... A big issue faced by the county in funding is all the unincorporated areas that have now become cites, but have avoided taking on the full burden. County loses the revenue, but still has to provide parks, library, etc. Less in the pool, but as the region grows, so does the cost to provide a wide network of these services. The one change I would opt is that if you decide to incorporate, you have to be ready to pay for it all, or do without.

The Trickle down theory I see is the Feds have less, and pay out less. The states then have less, are given more to do, and pay out less. The counties have less, with growth still have full range of areas they are responsible for, and pay out less. The Cities repeat the same.

The Trickling down is the fewer dollars, and larger populations with greater needs. It is pretty telling when the ex head of the GOP says we are running out of stuff to trim.

Sure... lets not give pay increases to cops, firemen, public nurses, doctors, and teachers... then we can be upset when we cannot recruit (because the average worker cannot afford to live here, and are paid better elsewhere) or the folks we do get are the ones no one else wants.

Cameron... when was the last raise the county sheriffs got? If the judge in arbitration says the raise has merit, that comes from research, not pulling it out of the union pile... Ever seen a map of King County? You want to patrol that with a 25 minute response rate for your back up because there are so few and they are spread out.

Did you know that Harborview Hospital, the place they take you for urgent care, lost their permit to take patients for a week about a year ago? They were inspected and did not federal standards... Not enough staff. Why? Not enough money paid to their staff. to save money, they have been cutting back the hours of those expensive experienced nurses... They have been given split shifts, and shifts to insure they don't hit 39.5 hours or less to reduce benefit costs, and over time. Experienced nurses cost more... Keep that in mind... those lovely budget savings you are pointing out the next time you are rushed into that ER... or your kid gets another Sub for the day, or when you need that county sheriff and you are 20 minutes into your situation....

Why is it we accept and embrace the line "you get what you pay for" in business, but never from our police, fire, schools or nurses?

Posted Thu, Oct 15, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, there is one thought I have long held... when folks incorporate, the county loses that revenue. But most small cities do not pick up the other parts of expenses... In short, if Newcastle wants to be a city, fine and well... they should now be responsible for police, fire, parks, and judicial... A big issue faced by the county in funding is all the unincorporated areas that have now become cites, but have avoided taking on the full burden. County loses the revenue, but still has to provide parks, library, etc. Less in the pool, but as the region grows, so does the cost to provide a wide network of these services. The one change I would opt is that if you decide to incorporate, you have to be ready to pay for it all, or do without.

The Trickle down theory I see is the Feds have less, and pay out less. The states then have less, are given more to do, and pay out less. The counties have less, with growth still have full range of areas they are responsible for, and pay out less. The Cities repeat the same.

The Trickling down is the fewer dollars, and larger populations with greater needs. It is pretty telling when the ex head of the GOP says we are running out of stuff to trim.

Sure... lets not give pay increases to cops, firemen, public nurses, doctors, and teachers... then we can be upset when we cannot recruit (because the average worker cannot afford to live here, and are paid better elsewhere) or the folks we do get are the ones no one else wants.

Cameron... when was the last raise the county sheriffs got? If the judge in arbitration says the raise has merit, that comes from research, not pulling it out of the union pile... Ever seen a map of King County? You want to patrol that with a 25 minute response rate for your back up because there are so few and they are spread out.

Did you know that Harborview Hospital, the place they take you for urgent care, lost their permit to take patients for a week about a year ago? They were inspected and did not federal standards... Not enough staff. Why? Not enough money paid to their staff. to save money, they have been cutting back the hours of those expensive experienced nurses... They have been given split shifts, and shifts to insure they don't hit 39.5 hours or less to reduce benefit costs, and over time. Experienced nurses cost more... Keep that in mind... those lovely budget savings you are pointing out the next time you are rushed into that ER... or your kid gets another Sub for the day, or when you need that county sheriff and you are 20 minutes into your situation....

Why is it we accept and embrace the line "you get what you pay for" in business, but never from our police, fire, schools or nurses?

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