Save money by redrawing Washington's map

Could Seattle be its own county? And why not consolidate some smaller, rural ones? In budget-tough times, maybe we ought to take another look at how the state is divvied up.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle City Hall

Could Seattle be its own county? And why not consolidate some smaller, rural ones? In budget-tough times, maybe we ought to take another look at how the state is divvied up.

Tough budget times up and down the government pecking order have some (The Seattle Times) calling for a "reset" and Gov. Chris Gregoire talking about rethinking the state's "core" services. Beyond budget cuts, some are proposing constitutional changes that would help set us up for the next round of growth. 

The latter ideas are the kind that should be kicked around: beyond lay-offs, give-backs, and shrinking budgets, how can we change the way governments are organized so as to be cheaper, more efficient, and perhaps even improve service?

One area to look at is consolidation. For years, rural areas have consolidated school districts due to declining small-town population. Others have pointed out that multiple transportation agencies in Puget Sound don't make sense: why not find a way to consolidate Sound Transit and Metro? Statewide, there are some 2,500 separate jurisdictions. Do we really need all of them?

Washington, for example, has 39 counties. We used to have fewer, and some date back to the territorial period. But there's nothing magic about the number (though it is also interesting that King County has 39 incorporated cities, so maybe numerology does play a role). Some Washington counties are small and some huge. So why not merge some low population counties? 

In southeastern Washington, Asotin County has a population of 21,432, about the size of Maple Valley (all estimates 2009). Garfield County (don't mean to pick on you guys!) has only 2,101, about the size of Carnation, home of contented cows. Next-door Columbia County (pop. 4,040) is about the size of Black Diamond. 

It would seem more efficient to combine clustered counties like these into a single entity, and I am sure there are other examples around the state (hello, Wahkiakum!). This is more easily done because these counties, most founded in the era of covered wagons, live in a world of the automobile and the internet. Services could still be delivered, court functions combined. The consolidated Asotin-Garfield-Columbia county would be about the land area of neighboring Whitman County, have a population about that of Pullman's, and would still be only half the size of Yakima County. In other words, it's doable without creating anything off the charts.

One would think such ideas would be popular in the rural Republican parts of Washington where public sector jobs are often scorned and government is seen as intrusive. Our pioneer ancestors knew the value of county seats as money-making opportunities and competing groups would sometimes steal the county records from one place and move them to another (there's a reason Oysterville is not a county seat). They knew that hosting county government was good business, especially a plum for lawyers. One could argue that fewer counties would help attack the systemic problem of government welfare.

But the idea could also work in larger metropolitan areas. In fact, many municipalities and counties are combined into single urban entities. City-county consolidation is found in various versions in Indianapolis, Nashville, Denver, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, to name a few. Closer to home is San Francisco, where the board of supervisors oversees city and county business in an entity that has identical borders. The city is the county is the city.

Could Seattle do that? 

Consolidation has been brought up here from time to time, as far back as the 1890s, according to HistoryLink. Here's one way it could work. Seattle could break-off from King County, form its own county and let the city run it. The city would gain more control over its tax revenues, and could direct them to urban services, and King County could downsize (eliminating the Seattle county council positions, for example) and adjust to service itself. 

This is the flip side of an idea put forth by property rights advocates in the 1990s who sought to break-off eastern King County into a new "Cedar County." Again, there's nothing administratively magical about 39 counties — we could have 25, or 57 varieties. But the ultimate point of my suggestion is to find ways to cut costs and streamline government.

One problem is pointed out by the former Republican Eastside state Rep. Toby Nixon. And that is that the state constitution provides for people being able to create or consolidate counties by petition, but the legislature is supposed to have passed laws creating that process. "So far, after 121 years, the legislature has failed to create such a law," he writes. In other words, the people can't petition unless there's a process, and since there's no process, the power lies with the legislature alone to create or kill counties.

Nixon attempted to get a county petition law passed in Olympia in 2005, but failed. He says a statewide initiative might be the way to do it.

Nixon also introduced a bill that would have shrunk King County to the Seattle city limits (allowing the two to have a single government), and the rest of King County would have become a new county called Cascade. One thing this would accomplish would be to move the job of running east and south King County closer to the suburban and rural communities that most rely on county services. A common complaint about King County is that it is too Seattle-centric. The bill proposed that the new interim county seat be established in Kent.

Obviously, messing with the map could get complicated and would be fraught with power struggles. And there are reasons why forming a new Seattle County might not be good for the region (more Balkanization, less "green" influence outside the city).

On the other hand, whether it's King or Klickitat, reconsidering counties is a way to think outside the box. How do you get through these tough times and end up with a more sustainable structure in the future? It might also be a way to preserve some vital services by not cutting programs, but rather duplication of effort.

The last county in Washington was created in 1911 (Pend Oreille). Maybe we should celebrate that centennial next year by taking another look at the system.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.