In a recent column, I mentioned that merging different special purpose districts — such as South King Fire and Rescue and Lakehaven Utility District — with city government would be more effective and efficient. A reader asked why I thought that, and why it wasn’t done.
My view isn’t couched in knee-jerk “government is too big” or “cut out the waste” rhetoric. Nor do I believe that either organization is poorly run. Quite the contrary.
My view, simply stated, is that merging municipal services would make them more visible and promote additional political accountability. Also, as part of a bigger system that reported to one CEO and one legislative authority, they would be subject to “competition” from other government services.
When I was in Auburn, we had both a fire department and utilities within city government. Auburn’s fire department recently joined a special purpose district, at least in part to improve its funding stream.
The last time I checked, there were more than 200 different special purpose districts in King County. They include the county, the Port of Seattle, approximately 40 cities, along with districts for schools, sewer, water, flood control, hospitals, weed control, fire and rescue, ferries and libraries, just to name a few.
While each has an appointed or elected board to provide oversight, and staff to carry out the board’s direction, these governmental agencies are solely focused on a specific enterprise. Each wants to make their government the best it can be at its particular function. They are only limited by any ceiling on their funding stream. They are not limited by public debate about the priorities of government because they have only one priority. Many of them have become almost shadow governments.
The point is not to suggest that any of these organizations are not doing a good job, or that SKFR and Lakehaven aren’t earnestly represented well by their elected board or their staff. They are. But if all three organizations were combined under Federal Way’s mayor and City Council, some improvements would occur simply by streamlining both legislative and administrative operations.
We currently have three separately elected boards. By combining the organizations, we would have only one. We have three chief executive officers: mayor, fire chief and general manager. Only the mayor would be the CEO. The other positions would remain, but would be department heads reporting to the mayor. Each agency has a finance director and an attorney and other positions that, upon review, might be duplicative. Each has other staff that could be cross-trained to assist in different departments. This would provide some cost savings, but that would be secondary to the visibility and accountability under my assertion.
However, politics being what it is, there is also a risk that the new government could get bigger. If you put SKFR into city government, the fire district could actually be competitive with the police department for the lion’s share of the money.
That could result in a political will that leads to additional public safety growth or unacceptable cuts to other non-public safety departments. Lakehaven as a utility would be self-supporting.
Under this arrangement, at least the playing field would be level as all municipal functions would be competing at the same time and at the same place under the same set of rules. That doesn’t happen now.
Why won’t this happen? Mostly politics, but also a little geography. Both SKFR and Lakehaven like being politically low-key special purpose districts and don’t want to be part of a highly visible “political” structure. Placing these two agencies under the control of the mayor and city council would likely make them more “political.” Issues that affect SKFR and Lakehaven would become part of city elections, which have a far higher profile than either agency. Also, if city leaders proposed a merger discussion, they would be attacked politically as “trying to grab more power.”
Additionally, the boundaries of each agencies service area are different from the city boundaries, which would be used as a defense for not merging. But it probably could be accomplished through inter-local agreements if the political will existed.
SKFR had a new approach to revenue on the ballot last fall that the public voted down. Would the mayor and council have put it on the ballot? It is always difficult to say what politicians will do when confronted with public safety needs and powerful unions.
But off the record, most did oppose the ballot measure because it had the potential to hamper other governments’ fiscal capacity — which, of course, would be exactly the reason for having these functions under one governmental authority. An open dialogue would occur.
Merge three governments into one. Cut some duplicative efforts, potentially improve efficiency, improve public oversight. Maybe save a little money. Sounds good. It will probably never happen.