Tight King County budget prompts fight for critical services

October 27, 2010

By Dan Catchpole

NEW — 6:26 p.m. Oct. 27, 2010

As the Metropolitan King County Council deliberates over next year’s budget, human services providers affected by proposed cuts are making sure their voices are heard.

County Executive Dow Constantine’s budget proposal cuts the last of the county’s once healthy general-fund monies for human services as part of austerity measures to close an impending $60 million shortfall.

Providers of services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and other services have broadcast the need for their services to the budget committee at three public hearings in October.

Amara Oden, Sno-Valley Senior Center executive director, asks members of the Metropolitan King County Council to preserve money for human services in the county budget, which is $60 million short. By Simon Ferretta

 

One woman, a survivor of domestic violence, bluntly told council members at a public hearing, “I would be dead without these services.”

Formerly trapped in a violent relationship, the woman is now a public school teacher.

“They’re making a compelling case for us to reprioritize the executive’s budget,” Councilwoman Julia Patterson said after a public hearing at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie.

Constantine’s office doesn’t defend the cuts, except to say that the executive is legally obligated to deliver a balanced budget proposal to County Council.

“These kind of cuts don’t make us more efficient,” said Frank Abe, a spokesman for Constantine.

“Though this budget is balanced, it is an imperfect budget. It is an unpleasant budget,” Constantine told the County Council when he presented his proposed budget in September. “It makes reductions in critical services that I do not want to make, but which must be made in order for the budget to be in balance.”

Local providers ask for support

Local providers of human services in Snoqualmie Valley also came out to plead for continued county support. Administrators and clients of senior centers in North Bend and Carnation told the council members of the value they offer the community. Both are in the proposed 2011 budget, but have seen support cut in recent years.

“We are a lifeline” for many seniors, said Amara Oden, director of the SnoValley Senior Center in Carnation.

With demand for their services increasing, the senior centers must have continued support, Mount Si Senior Center Director Ruth Tolmasoff said.

The North Bend-based organization has seen its number of clients rise during the recession and sluggish recovery. Among the clients are a growing number of veterans, Tolmasoff said.

Other comments by Snoqualmie Valley residents reflected the area’s rural nature.

One woman from Fall City took issue with proposed cuts to police officers patrolling unincorporated areas.

The mayors from Snoqualmie and North Bend asked the budget committee to maintain funding for the King County Flood District.

“Our economic function is protected by flood district money,” North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing said.

The district has also helped protect homes, Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said.

In the past three years, the district has helped pay to raise 70 homes in Snoqualmie. That is the same number of homes raised in Snoqualmie between 1990 and the district’s creation in 2007, he said.

County can’t pay for everything

While dozens of people have made compelling cases to council members for preserving a variety of programs, the fact remains that the county does not have enough money to maintain services at current levels. The $612.8 million general fund is about $60 million short.

To bring expenditures in line with revenue, Constantine’s proposed budget makes deep cuts to existing programs. The cuts are not popular, but they are necessary, according to Abe.

The entire budget totals $5 billion, but almost all of it has to be spent on certain things, such as outstanding debt and capital improvements. The general fund, which pays for critical day-to-day services, makes up only 13 percent of the county’s total budget.

So, while the county’s overall budget is large, the council and executive have very little flexibility regarding how it is spent.

That flexibility has been shrinking in recent years as rising expenses have quickly surpassed the county’s revenues.

Revenues have shrunk in part from the recession and also from caps on how much the county can raise taxes, typically below inflation.

The revenue system is largely dependent on property tax and sales tax to pay for public services. The system “dates back to the farm-based economies of the 1850s,” according to the County Council’s website.

The site said the difference between rising expenses and the limited rate revenue can increase a “structural gap.”

Patterson agreed that it is a structural issue, and said that reforms being implemented by the council and the executive are addressing that problem.

Fundamental solutions are needed

Some of the fixes are short-term ones.

Constantine’s office has been in negotiations with unions representing more than 10,000 county employees about waiving guaranteed cost-of-living increases in 2011. So far, unions representing more than 5,000 employees have agreed to forgo the raises, which is expected to save the county several million dollars.

While Constantine has proposed 12 percent across-the-board reductions, he has also asked county employees to pay 12.5 percent more for their benefits package.

The council has also introduced reforms to its labor negotiating policies to bring future cost-of-living increases in line with actual inflation.

The biggest challenge, Patterson said, is rising medical expenses, most of which lie outside the county’s control.

For the foreseeable future, Constantine’s office expects county expenses to rise about three percent a year. That is about $15 million to $20 million a year in current dollars.

To meet rising costs, Constantine has implemented a countywide effort to find 3 percent savings in improved efficiency every year. His office believes that these savings can be found every year.

“We believe that because we know that our employees know best how to get the job done,” Abe said.

To help in the effort, barriers would be removed to make it easier for employees to find and implement cost-savings, he said.

Dan Catchpole: 392-6434, ext. 246, or editor@snovalleystar.com.

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