Three King County legislators want to ask Washington voters to amend the state constitution to allow the legislature to shut down counties that get more in state funds than they send to the treasury in taxes. The proposal is mostly for show, just as proposals from Eastern Washington legislators in past years proposed cutting the state in half at the Cascade Crest. But a Crosscut article by Knute Berger generated considerable response and interest in looking at county government more generally.
The fact that small, rural, and largely Eastern Washington counties have a negative balance of payments is hardly new; anyone looking at where the big shopping and commercial areas are located could figure it out. The same dynamic occurs in nearly every state in the union, and always has. For that matter, some city neighborhoods generate cash and others spend it.
The legislative proposal may serve to shine a light on how counties spend their funds, however, and how they deal with the revenue they receive. Such a light should show that for the most part small counties are good stewards of their funds, live within their means, and don't spend a lot of time complaining about it. They like to elect most of their officials, even including coroners who are ill-qualified for their work, and the courthouse remains a focal point of political life. Ritzville isn't Bellevue and we're all better for it.
County governments in rural and small-town Washington are close to their constituents and usually more conservative in taxing and spending than the big urban counties ringing Puget Sound. As a result, cutting a deputy sheriff, a drug counselor, or health worker is often a blow to a family everyone in the county knows or knows about. But serious cuts have been made in the last three years, and in many ways the small counties have been more realistic about the economy than their big-city cousins.
As a general rule, according to Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, the counties that have had the most fiscal trouble with the recession have been suburban, not rural. In suburban counties the housing boom created a batch of new money (higher sales and property taxes), but when the bubble burst these counties faced a serious decline in revenues.
Small farming counties tend to have flatter economies less vulnerable to sudden changes in the overall economy. Where all counties are very vulnerable, however, is unexpected costs in the criminal justice system, which accounts for between 62 and 84 percent of counties' operating costs. A murder investigation or trial can run up costs for public defenders and push a small county to the edge, forcing cuts in other programs. There is state aid in these cases, but never enough.
Franklin County hopes the state's Extraordinary Criminal Justice Costs program will help pay the staggering cost of three trials for convicted killer Vicente Ruiz, who was sentenced on Jan. 20 to five life terms for killing five men in 1987. The trials (two were declared mistrials) cost the county $578,000 since 2007 and the cost could reach $668,000 when all bills are counted. The county is asking $373,000 from the state fund for the two trials that took place in 2010. County prosecutors are on the regular payroll, but no one can predict outside costs for public defenders, translators, and witnesses in a big trial.
Franklin County's ability to get help from the state is limited at best, and dependent upon legislative largess in the tightest budget in many years; funding is entirely in the hands of the legislature — the governor submits no budget for the Extraordinary Criminal Justice Program. In 2010, a total of $620,000 was distributed to Jefferson, Skagit, and Franklin counties. The previous year, $500,000 was distributed to Franklin, Skagit, Yakima, Spokane, and King counties.
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