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The would-be county killers

A new proposal in Olympia targets counties that are obsolete and take more than they give back. It's an aggressive opening to an important debate.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle

Three state representatives, including two Puget Sound Democrats and a Republican, have sponsored a bill offering a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would give the legislature the power to eliminate counties that don't pull their weight. Since the county map has been set for exactly a century (the last current county was created in 1911), such a proposal seems a bit like tossing tomatoes at the Cascades to get them to budge. Washington's 39 counties seem set in stone. Not that they should be.

The bill, sponsored by Democrats Reuven Carlyle of Seattle and Hans Dunshee of Snohomish, and Republican Glenn Anderson of Fall City, says the state should be able to shut down counties that aren't capable of sustaining themselves. That means that if a county received state funds equaling 200 percent or more of the revenues that it contributed to the state over 10 years, the legislature could move to dissolve or reorganize the county.

As it happens, this isn't theoretical. There are eight counties that could be endangered under the rule: Adams, Asotin, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, Garfield, Yakima, and Wahkiakum. The bill is designed less to become law than to get some lawmakers' attention. It's no coincidence that these counties tend to be rural and Republican. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is not getting good reviews in Eastern Washington.

One of the reasons for the bill is to engage a conversation about fairness. How should cuts be determined, and where should spending occur? In a time of budget crisis, does it make more sense to invest in the state's economic engines (places like King County, which alone generates 40 percent of state revenues), or dribble money away to entities that arguably survive on state welfare? Is it fair to use legislation to point out the irony or hypocrisy of GOP fiscal conservatism when many Republican strongholds are most reliant on the public dole?

Reuven Carlyle says that figuring which counties pay the most taxes and which get the most benefit is important information. Writing on his blog:

Six counties contribute a whopping 75% of the state’s taxes and eight are 'net contributors' of taxes while 31 are 'net recipient.' In a overarching generalization with exceptions, the political disposition of those 31 'net recipient' counties seem to lean Republican while the six 'net contributor' counties might be seen to lean Democratic. The 31 are mostly rural while the six are more populated.

This isn't the real issue or even the reason I am promoting a robust public dialogue. My real goal is simple: As we make substantial reductions in state spending, we must break free of the stale, rigid political cliches and recognize that we cannot cut our way out of this Great Recession.

In other words, Carlyle is trying to get everyone to focus on the bind we are in together. Many rural conservatives are dependent on state largesse, yet they act as if urbanized Western Washington is the problem. Carlyle continues:

Why is it acceptable for some counties, for example, to receive $2 or more for every dollar they send to state government year in and year out and yet vote against every tax imaginable without grasping the implications? I may be accused of proposing to "punish" counties for voting against taxes, but surely those counties should feel the honest, true and legitimate externalities of implications for their policy positions. That is not "punishment," it is courageous honesty that is outside of the comfort zone of our state’s current political discourse.

For one thing, if counties are chronically dependent, perhaps the state should incentivize locals to find efficiencies, which is presumably what the bill would do. I proposed last year that we re-look at the county map and think about which ones could be divided, consolidated, or eliminated as a potential cost-saving response to the budget crisis. Counties were mostly created in the horse-and-buggy era. After my piece came out, Bill Stafford, retiring head of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, shared a 2004 memo with me in which he decried the current county system as antiquated, based on a time when the county seat had to be located no more than a day's horseback ride away. Surely in the era of freeways and the Internet, we can do better than that.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 7:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The counties are set in stone... sort of. I mean that literally and not metaphorically. The names of the couties are carved into the stone ceiling of one of the state legislative chambers, I can't remember which off the top of my head. We would have to mess with that ceiling if we messed with the counties.

Jon Sayer

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

With more local communities wanting more local control of their destiny, it might be worth the investigation to see if Counties, whose local (cities)political boundaries are able (through growth management) to cover the total area of the County through annexations, could opt to divy up the County's remaining rsponsibilities and close down the County government.
King County is a prime example of this potential.

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

This will never happen. See State Senate.
What we need in these tough economic times is to think bigger. Why do we need a City of Seattle and King County. For example, why do we need two Park Directors ? Merging Seattle and King County would be an interesing exercise if bright guys like Charley Royer and Fred Jarrett were asked to examine it. There are consolidated cities and counties across the US. Just a thought.

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

I touched on this, HansvillePastaBoy, in my first Crosscut piece back in 2008. http://crosscut.com/2008/04/24/king-county/13493/Defragging-King-County/ (http://goo.gl/KrPWA for short). Consolidation isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it depends on how it's implemented. There would seem to be two possibilities for Seattle—King County (could apply to Everett—Snohomish and Tacoma—Pierce as well):

1. One government covering the entire territory of what is now King County. I don't see the Eastside municipalities going for this unless they were forced to.
2. Seattle forming its own county, extending only to the present city limits, and the rest of King County carrying on without us. County seat Bellevue? Seattle might like this, but I'm not sure what it would do to county revenue.

Certainly not saying none of this is worth exploring — in fact, I'd love to explore it — but anything that moves the seat of government farther from the people, or eliminates smaller municipalities, is bound to raise hackles, especially in this day and age of people feeling, rightly or wrongly, that they are not being listened to.

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

While Rep. Carlyle's intentions are good, I believe he lands on the wrong philosophical point. There are several small counties that are bankrupt, for all practical purposes. They cannot maintain basic county services and the state has been bailing them out. The calculations should exclude state expenditures for state functions, such as state highways, state parks, prisons, education and so on. Looking only at the county's budget, can they afford to continue, or, in a business model, do they need to merge or find a stronger partner?

Our counties were created in 1889 and a county seat was as far as you could travel by horse, do your business and return in a day.

Counties should be allowed to initiate a merger with an adjoining county to create efficiencies. Making it their initiative would remove a lot of the politics and overlay a business model.

Since Seattle is paying its way, there should be no talk of merging it with King County and making local government even more remote, inaccessible and unobtainable.

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

How about dissolving the counties that generate more complaints about King County than they do in taxes?

Goforride

Posted Tue, Feb 1, noon Inappropriate

I'm not clear on how savings would be realized by consolidating poor counties. There would be fewer county governments, but there would still be a need for an equal number of courts, police, fire fighters, roads, and building inspectors. In essence, all you're eliminating is "upper management." What percentage of county budgets does that account for?

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Government at every level has two basic functions. First, to represent and be responsive to its residents. That requires some degree of proximity. Merging counties would create a burden on the residents of those large rural counties who need to access many of those services or their elected officials. Second, is to create a degree of equity thru taxation and the provision of services - police, courts, transportation, education, etc. Frankly, efficiency is and always has been pretty far down the list of what government is all about. Would fewer counties be more efficient - probably. But, you can ask do we really need 39 cities in King County? Does anyone believe that is efficient - with 39 police chiefs, 39 parks directors, 39 public works departments, etc, etc.? Do we really need the dozens of school districts in King County alone or the hundreds that exist statewide? The answer is no and it would be more efficient if there were a lot fewer. But, we would loose the representation and responsiveness of these government institutions and services to the communities they serve.

SteveC

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Whatever it does, the legislature needs to stop finding ways to muddle through, and cut things people will really notice and probably miss. Too few people in this state seem to have any idea just what government does for them. And if they do, they think it should be free. And that just ain't gonna happen. Cutting government services in anti-tax counties isn't punitive. It's a reality check.

T.M. Sell

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 4:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The current situation is a sweet deal for the rural counties and their lawmakers, who outnumber the urban counties and lawmakers. So it's not going to change, unfortunately. I'd like to see the Seattle Times represent its readers instead of some airy idealized Washingtonian, though -- Seattle is tired of subsidizing the rest of the state.

DannyK

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Counties may disappear, but the problem remain. Is the proposal simply to ignore them? Proponents of this legislation must demonstrate the saving sure to be achieved by elimination of counties. Surely, courts, law enforcement and untilities and etc. etc. will be needed. As presented the argument fails.
hobarticus

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Figures lie and liars figure. The rural counties you speak of generally lack the private business sector that the more heavily-populated have, so folks from farms and tiny communities trek to large towns to purchase trucks, cars, tractors, combines, parts, implements, fertilizer, seed, logging machinery, chemicals, insurance, etc. These folks are also more likely to purchase clothing, shoes, computers, televisions and large stocks of food from stores in larger towns in heavily-populated counties. Few of these hard working folks need or demand the social services the urban populace demands. What they do want is their own small county governments that provide necessary services and minimal regulation. If western Washington Marxist elites would rather these eastern counties went somewhere else, I'm certain Idaho would listen.

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 6:14 p.m. Inappropriate

A mischievous proposal, clearly designed to make a point and not a very good one. Incomes are lower in rural Washington and citizens there are more apt to think critically of any added taxes. This should surprise no one. Poor people in King and Whatcom County probably oppose increased taxes in roughly equal proportion to people east of the Cascades. As the first commenters note, this will not happen and is not even intended to happen. I am disappointed in Mr. Carlyle.

kieth

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 6:23 p.m. Inappropriate

and next do the lower income areas of Seattle get the boot? There are big areas of low income people that suck up taxes. Will you cut by zip code or census tracts?
Fools.
Get rid of the United States cheap food policy and many of Yakima's problems go away

Granger

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 8:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Just how "rural" is Yakima County?
They get $2.4 for each $1 the contribute.
http://www.thestranger.com/images/blogimages/2011/01/25/1295977794-2008_rev_and_exp_by_county2.pdf
Yakima County has 241,446 people (ofm estimate).
So, please, save the poor farmer BS.

The slippery slope we are heading down, no matter what happens with this bill, is to a shift of local taxing districts. Those that have the means will buy and build the local government they want and then figure everybody else is doing the same. This is the One Washington death spiral, where statewide initiatives for modest tax increases for basic things go to die.

If the Puget Sound counties have Transportation Benefit Districts then why would they ever vote for another nickel gas tax?
Seattle rolled out the "families" levy today, twice as big as the 2004 levy.

In two years this bill to prompt discussion will be the way things actually are. Some counties voted for less government, well, that is what is left.

I'm glad this story was written, but it was missing actual dollar numbers. If King County kept every dollar we could build a deep bore tunnel every other year, forever. Or, monorails for all! Or, free bus service in King County! The subway in Seattle that we could never afford is being spread around the state so liberals can feel good and conservatives can talk bad.
Whatever "it" is, we are noticing that we can not afford it and every other dollar is leaving the county.

Like it or not, One Washington voted for the One Washington they are getting.

Mr Baker

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 8:29 p.m. Inappropriate

So just wondering. Say this passes...Highly unlikely but let's say it does. Yakima merges into Benton County. Then Benton County takes in more dollars then it gives so Benton merges into King County and then King COunty suddenly takes in less then it gives so it merges into........Wow..soon we'll just have one big county.

hlongan

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 6:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Baker, how can this be? Given the concentration of illegal aliens in Yakima County. We all "know" that illegal aliens contribute far more in revenue producing (and thus taxable) labor than they recieve in State benefits, just ask the OneAmerica folks.
There must be a flaw in the data.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, Cameron, and now that it has been revealed Washington has three times as many illegals as we had just three years ago, we can look forward to even greater "productivity", can't we? Truth, of course, is that illegals come to WA for drivers licenses, voting "rights", education and the all free stuff our generous Democrat political machine bestows on them. Democrats just love spending other peoples' money to support their own causes, don't they?

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, folks/ This proposal wins my Michelle Bachman award for ignorance, insensitivity and insanity. Here are the two main reasons to not even flirt with the idea.

First, do these urban core types have any clue whatsoever of the deep cultural meaning of counties in American history? Counties are the primary government for most of the territory of the country (and of Washington state), THEIR government, the secular equivalent of sacred. Are we still so clueless as to why we are hated so much by the rest of the state?

Second, the economic story is both incomplete and wrong. Washington counties are viable. The measure of state revenues versus expenditures represents only a fraction of the total real economy. The net payments made to poorer and to sparsely populated counties have long been justified in economic theory, because we metropolitan types (and our vaunted economy) utterly depend on the maintenance of those far off roads, and on the education of those kids, who may be worker in King county next year. Just consider the wheat from eastern Washington and the huge income we make locally from its export through Seattle! Most important, please PAY ATTENTION, the net flows of income from the Seattle metropolitan core (King ,Pierce, Snohomish counties) are vastly exceeded by the flows of income from the rest of the state in the private account, as they have to come here for a significant share of goods and services. As much as a quarter of the entire product (value of goods and services) are from the huge surplus of trade we enjoy with the rest of the state.

DMorrill

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Great remarks by DMorrill. However, I suspect that the legislation is within a proud tradition of tongue-in-cheek bills intended to poke sacred cows in the ... let's say eye. Bills breaking the state apart into different configurations for example. Although it's remotely possible that the bill is serious, two of the three prime sponsors are known to have a Jon Stewart sense of humor.

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

DMorrill: Economic issues aside, there is nothing sacred about how many counties there are or what shape they are. Washington has previously broken up counties and redrawn their boundaries (Benton formed out of Klickitat and Yakima in 1905, Ferry sliced off from Stevens county, Grant from Douglas, etc.), and even eliminated them (I draw your attention to Ferguson County, abolished during the Territorial period, once the largest county in Eastern Washington). No one is suggesting getting rid of the county system, merely updating it. There is nothing set in stone about the number 39, except some lovely court houses.

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Forget the us vs. them aspects of this for awhile and consider the issue of cost — taxpayer — savings and efficiency.
The people who live in an underpopulated area still need law enforcement. Courts, prosecution, indigent defense and police make up a huge proportion of most counties' budgets, the biggest piece of the pie by far.
The state pays part of those costs. So consolidation makes sense from that perspective. Maybe Asotin County doesn't need its own full-time prosecuting attorney, its own Superior and District court judges, county clerk, court administrator, etc.
Would love to see some real number crunching from the Association of Counties or perhaps an independent party. Maybe governance could remain the same to satisfy the independent spirits, but some counties combine law enforcement services. It's no secret that fire districts all over the state are consolidating for financial and professional standards reasons.

julimac

Posted Thu, Feb 3, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Skip's (partly) right. There is nothing sacred about the number of counties in Washington, or what shape they are. With that in mind, perhaps now is the time to seriously consider dividing King County into three counties; one between Puget Sound and Lake Washington; an east King County between Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish, and a third, exurban-rural county east of Lake Sammamish to the Cascades.

Posted Thu, Feb 3, 4:29 p.m. Inappropriate

How would this actually save taxpayers actual money?

This strikes me as a way for the 'haves' such as King County, to try to dictate what the 'have nots' can have. Quality of life can't be made equal, but rural areas have just as much right to state support and county services as do the rest of us.

Frankly, the idea that the state provides 'too much' support to these counties is odd. Perhaps the reality is that the state 'over supplies' the wealthier counties at the 'expense' of the less fortunate counties.

Posted Sat, Feb 5, 8:53 a.m. Inappropriate

If as Crankyoldlady suggests this is some form of Jon Stewart like humor, I would respond that this is no time for Eroc Oemig like time wasting proposals.

On the other hand if they are serious, putting into statute the ability for the consolidation, elimination or creation of Counties could prove useful.
Given the current mandates for governmental agencies to maintain and store records and access to information in a timely fashion for records requests from the public, I could see considerable challenges and costs for any changes to occur.

Cameron

Posted Sat, Feb 5, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Skip and others are right that the system of counties is not sacred and they have changed. There is nothing wrong with floating a few more realistic possibilities. But consolidation should not be forced on unwilling, viable local governments. Besides small counties I believe can already contract with larger neighbors for services.

DMorrill

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