Public safety takes a big hit in King County

Top King County officials warned June 5 that public safety and criminal justice will take a hit beginning in 2009, when the county expects a $68 million General Fund shortfall.

The rising cost to provide county services, paired with insufficient revenue, has caused the county to enforce an 8.6 percent budget cut to the criminal justice system beginning in 2009. The cuts are expected to prevail through 2012. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer and King County District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde met June 5 to discuss, at a press conference, how the deficit will affect public safety and the county’s residents.

Budget crisis

Seventy-one percent of the county’s General Fund is used for criminal justice and public safety measures, said Larry Phillips, D-District 4. Phillips is a Metropolitan King County Council member and chair of the council’s 2009 Budget Review and Adoption Committee.

The county experienced budget cuts in 2002. County officials thought the deficit gap was closed after this, but that was not the case. The only areas left to scale back now are criminal justice and public safety, Phillips said.

“(The deficit) is back with a vengeance, and now we don’t have low-hanging fruit to cut,” he said.

Some court programs will be decreased and misdemeanor crimes deferred to lower courts. Prosecutors will be harder to come by and police response times in unincorporated King County could be affected by 2010. Workloads will increase and staff will decrease.

“The four-year outlook is really awful if we are not able to find relief,” Phillips said.

Sheriff’s office:

The sheriff’s office is preparing for a $7.5 million budget cut. This is equivalent to 75 deputies. It will no longer have the resources to investigate property crimes valuing less than $10,000.

Investigations of large-scale drug operations, fraud, Internet, identity theft and “cold case” crimes will also lack the proper resources for investigation.

Additionally, as 2011 approaches, residents in unincorporated King County will see profound effects. Rahr does not anticipate cutting reactive patrols (those that respond to emergency calls) in 2009, but said she cannot guarantee this will hold true in 2010 and 2011.

“Make no mistake, this is not the ideal approach to public safety,” Rahr said.

District Court:

Programs not mandated by the state are at risk in the district court, which will face a $2.1 million cut, Linde said. Prioritizing could mean the loss of mental health and relicensing courts, as well as probation services, she said.

“Our caseload will not get smaller because of these cuts; our staff probably will,” Linde said.

Superior Court:

The Superior Court will see a $3.8 million budget cut. Services such as drug court, which diverts addicts from the county jail system, and family court, which offers family mediation and evaluation services, could be at stake, Hilyer said.

“The criminal justice system is interconnected,” Hilyer said. “That is why we must be concerned about budget cuts.”

Prosecutor’s office:

The prosecutor’s office has been told to prepare for a $3.7 million cut. This means criminal cases will take longer and prosecutors will be forced to prioritize their workload.

“We’ll see delays and backlogs,” Satterberg said.

Approximately 30 prosecutors will be let go, said King County Prosecutor’s Office Deputy Chief of Staff Ian Goodhew.

“In the criminal division, that is about one-sixth of our workforce,” he said.

Local impacts:

Federal Way will feel the impacts of the budget cuts as well. Services performed by the county, such as arson investigations, could lack funding, Phillips said. The municipal court will face a larger workload. A decrease in prosecuting attorneys will lead to longer wait times for private lawsuits and criminal matters.

The elimination of higher court services will put more stress on local jurisdictions to find a way to house their prisoners, Phillips said. Taxpayers will pay for this burden.

Federal Way police are just learning of the budget shortfall. It is hard to predict how the crisis will affect Federal Way, police Cmdr. Melanie McAllester said.

“This is the first time we have heard what the anticipated cuts will be,” she said.

Closer examination:

State and federal help is needed to close the gap in funding, said Metropolitan King County Council member Kathy Lambert, R- District 3.

As much as the public may not like it, in order to concentrate on public safety, the council will have to reconsider its efforts in areas such as global warming, she said. This is a pressing issue and one many of the county’s residents are passionate about — but the federal government, not King County, should be funding efforts to reduce the phenomenon, she said.

“We need to cut good things to do better things,” Lambert said.

Officials at Thursday’s press conference urged the public to contact their local and state representatives and request the county’s council and executive to work together to solve the budget deficit and restore public safety.

“We are asking the public to get a little upset,” Satterberg said.

Get involved:

Metropolitan King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer, R- District 7, represents Federal Way. He can be contacted at (206) 296-1007 or by e-mail at State Rep. Skip Priest, R-30th District, State Rep. Mark Miloscia, D- 30th District, and State Sen. Tracey Eide, D-30th District, represent Federal Way in the state Legislature. Contact information can be found at the Washington State Legislature Web site at

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