King County budget debate won’t be academic

If you like public policy debates about what government should, or shouldn’t do, or about what government’s priorities are or should be, you’re going to love the debate about the 2008 King County Budget.

For those of you who live in a city and think this debate is academic and doesn’t affect you, you need to get another cup of coffee. How would you like a county-wide utility tax?

I thought that might get your attention. The county does not currently have authority to levy a utility tax — that would have to be authorized by the state legislature. To answer your next question, no, they don’t actually provide utilities either, but with their revenue not looking so good, they’re getting creative.

Recently, King County Executive Ron Sims announced the county was facing a $68 million budget shortfall in a general fund of about $648 million. That’s significant.

When you consider that about 70 percent of the general fund pays for criminal justice, the sheriff’s department, prosecuting attorney and courts, you start to see the fiscal and political dilemma. Predictably, King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, along with Superior Court and District Court judges responding to the potential cuts in their departments, point out dire consequences. Cuts in their departments would cause some problems and they know it. So does Executive Sims.

But there’s not room to get enough money out of the 30 percent non-public safety departments to make up the difference. Do you want to cut elections?

It’s pretty easy to recall the role financial cuts played in that department. How about animal services? It was in the news recently because it needs new facilities and more staff. Or maybe you could close health clinics or cut human services. It is not a pretty picture.

The two main revenue sources are sales tax but the economy isn’t performing all that well, and property tax which has a 1 percent cap on it. In addition, the public has voted to cut taxes like the vehicle excise tax. Since inflation has been up 2-5 percent each year, the county budget has fallen behind.

In 2002-2005, the county cut $137 million of the easiest items, so this time around the cuts will be serious. So serious that the county has been floating trial balloons to suburban cities like ours, and state legislators, about ways to fix their budget problems.

Remember the utility tax I mentioned earlier? Well, the county would likely ask the cities to support it before the state legislature and tie the funding to the courts, jails and the Sheriff’s office for implementation. If the cities don’t want to support the idea, the county will threaten to cut programs or force them on to cities.

Also, even though most unincorporated areas in the county do not have enough revenue to support the urban level of services they want, the county is reluctant to cut services like sheriff’s deputies to those areas.

As most objective King County watchers note, the county does have an ongoing fiscal problem and does not have the array of taxing options cities have.

So this isn’t a new problem, just one that won’t go away. Questions you should ask yourself as the debate unfolds include: what is the level of service the county government should provide in unincorporated areas? What is a reasonable level of taxation to provide regional services? Should cities have to pick up services the county can no longer afford or doesn’t want? Is the 1 percent property tax cap realistic? What cuts would you support, or what new fees or taxes?

Now, as to that county-wide utility tax I mentioned.

Is it likely city leaders will support the idea? Not at this point. But then negotiations are just beginning and when it gets to spending city money to pay for county programs versus asking the legislature for new tax authority, then that utility tax or something similar, may start to look pretty good to city leaders.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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