Budget season in King County: Get ready to hyperventilate

The budget! The budget!

Oh my goodness, the leaves are turning, it’s getting cold, and it’s time to order an extra 10 pounds of coffee because I won’t have time to sleep. Better stock up on Tylenol for the coffee-induced headaches and line up the bottles of Maalox within easy reach. How do I make everyone happy? There’s never enough money and everyone thinks their project is the most important. The employees are always underpaid and the unions will want more and the public always wants more service — but doesn’t want to pay for it. And don’t mention taxes, or the phone message pile will quadruple.

The budget! I’m starting to hyperventilate.

“Stop and take a deep breath, Bob. It’s not your worry anymore,” I remind myself. I’ve been retired for five years and I still go through the same symptoms every fall. A 30-year ritual is hard to break. Poor Neal Beets (Federal Way city manager). Poor Ron Sims (King County executive). Poor city and county councils. And this year, it’s even worse. We have now officially been in a recession for a year, but nobody bothered to tell us until last week. In county government, they were looking at a $90 million shortfall. They have cut budgets in the sheriff’s office, prosecutor’s office and in the court system.

And remember the fire storm about the terrible conditions in the county animal shelters from last summer? Well, the council members ended up cutting some of the money they had appropriated to try and solve the staff shortage, and there wasn’t any movement to try and replace the 30-year-old shelter even though it’s long overdue. Some portables, however, are being brought in to help with over-crowding. They did pass a budget proviso to look at contracting out the animal control function, which is effectively a punt into next year. Contracting out will be just as expensive as county-run because there is still a need for new facilities and more staff. Although if the council is creative, it could be made to look cheaper.

After all the cuts, the council and executive still ended up putting a lot of employees and programs into a “lifeboat,” meaning they are funded for a few months while the county seeks taxing authorities from the Legislature. And without legislative help, there are not a lot of options. All the easy budget cuts were actually made from about 1999 to 2002 — everything left is hard.

Here in Federal Way, the main discussion was how much of the “rainy day fund” to save vs. how much to cut in services or projects. And while no one doubts it really is raining, nobody in city government is any smarter than they are in Washington, D.C. — meaning no one really knows when the rain will stop.

City Manager Neal Beets’ first approach was to use the rainy day fund to cover the shortfalls for 2009-2010. Some council members were supportive of that, but most were not. The second approach was to use half the rainy day fund. However, the council’s cautious side kicked in and they decided it might rain for longer than two years. The council felt increasing the savings in the fund and cutting capital projects was better, so now they’re trying to cover four years of future budget issues with savings. That appears to still leave about $5 million in strategic reserves, $6 million in downtown redevelopment ($4 million obligated), $1.2 million in the city manager’s contingency fund, plus the rainy day account goal of growing to $3.1 million. I sure hope it doesn’t rain that much! I mean, that’s an awful lot of rain if all those reserves need to be spent.

What will happen to the economy? No one really knows. The county and city budgets are now done. But the challenges and needs didn’t go away; they only got set aside. Come January, watch for a major discussion on the performing arts center by the Federal Way City Council. The council is split between yes, no and maybe — or maybe not.

But since I won’t need all that coffee, Tylenol and Maalox I impulsively bought, maybe I should share it with Beets and Sims because they’re surely going to need it.