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Seattle, King County budgets: Who is dysfunctional now?

Just as the city ends one round of budget cutting forced by the recession without fireworks, King County enters a very uncertain period of debate about taxes and spending.

Just as the city of Seattle is getting through a new round of budget cuts in fairly low-key fashion, King County enters its latest budget and taxation discussions with still-fresh wounds from the failure in May to decide on a tax plan to put before voters in August.

The King County Council will begin budget committee discussions on tax issues today (June 15) with an eye toward a possible November public vote. The County Council ground to a halt on the issues in late May in a fashion that was both highly partisan (despite the nominally non-partisan nature of the council) and potentially a portent of deeper problems for county operations.

In many ways, the council problems were actually worse than they seemed on the surface. The four-person budget leadership on the council has long been bipartisan and has largely been able to come to mutual agreements. But this year, at least in part because one or more council Republicans were feeling pressured by the more Tea Party-leaning elements of the GOP, things fell apart, even after the sheriff and county prosecutor had felt they were assured of support for a tax vote from budget committee members Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn (both originally elected as Republicans).

Even last week, it was clear the council's budget chair, Julia Patterson, still felt a sense of betrayal but she also said time would tell if the good relations could be restored. She said, however, that the council members consider one another friends, which is a helpful starting point.

Late Monday, Dunn responded to several phone requests for comment, leaving a voice message that said he and Lambert are introducing a new, tax-neutral plan to ask voters to increase the sales tax to save public safety services while cutting several property taxes. The reduced taxes would include ones for parks expansion, the flood control district, and automated fingerprint identification.

It could be a start back toward the kind of mutual give-and-take that Patterson and council chair Bob Ferguson say led to unanimous decisions among budget leaders in the past. Plus, Patterson had expressed dismay at the lack of concrete alternatives from Dunn and Lambert; now they have one, even if it didn't come until the eve of renewed tax discussions.

Still, in contrast to the county's recent troubles, the city seemed to come through its latest budget action with a minimum of political tension. That was, perhaps, aided by the fact that McGinn made fairly modest adjustments, in effect kicking the can down the road rather than making the hardest choices about restructuring. But McGinn probably made enough cuts to get through the rest of the year with a little room to spare. Much of the savings come from holding off on planned police, library, and parks spending, but McGinn touched every area except the fire department (he said he held off at the last minute to see what lessons might come from the five deaths in a Fremont fire). His decisions apparently were balanced enough to bring no sign of a fight from the city council.

For this fall's discussions with the council on the 2011 budget, McGinn left himself in reasonably good position to act more boldly on budget cuts and modest fee or tax increases. Plus, he managed to come off looking rather mayoral in getting finances temporarily back in line without a fight with the council.

In the first months of the year, media attention focused on McGinn's unsteady start running the city, getting into fights with the City Council while delivering lackluster opening performances at his inauguration and his state of the city speech. New King County Executive Dow Constantine got off to a smoother start, hiring a highly respected deputy executive, then landing the city's longtime budget guru.

Constantine bears little if any fault for the County Council's inability to reach any consensus last month. And the county faces bigger budget challenges than the city. Moreover, it is hardly ideal for Seattle to have a City Council that, no matter who is mayor, seems perpetually ready to declare a truce on any issue. At the moment, though, any taunts about Seattle supposedly having a dysfunctional city government won't come from King County offices.

Joe Copeland is political editor for Crosscut. You can reach him at Joe.Copeland@crosscut.com.


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