When he announced his plans to deal with a projected county budget deficit of $93 million, King County Executive Ron Sims put $10.5 million of those cuts in a category he called a "lifeboat"--programs that will be cut on June 30, 2009, unless the county comes up with a new long-term, stable funding source to pay for them. The "lifeboat" programs include critical health, human-services, and public safety programs.
Although the proposed cuts to public safety have been drawing the bulk of media coverage--thanks in large part to KC Sheriff Sue Rahr's relentless PR campaign--cuts to other county programs, including transit, health, and human services, strike at the very core of what county government is about. Food banks, aid to homebound seniors, domestic-violence services, programs to help struggling mothers, disease control, and public health centers all would be eliminated or drastically reduced.
Some of the specific cuts and changes, culled by reading the budget itself (YOU'RE WELCOME!) follow.
• Mental Health Court. King County's mental health court has been extremely successful in getting mentally ill convicts out of jail and giving them access to treatment, job training, and other services. If permanent funding isn't found elsewhere, Sims's proposed budget would eliminate mental health court completely by 2011.
• Domestic Violence Programs. Sims's budget would (again, if the "lifeboat" programs aren't funded elsewhere) eliminate the county's domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs. This includes the Step-Up program for violent teens at risk of becoming violent adults and all other county domestic-violence programs.
• Drug Diversion Court. Another "lifeboat" program, drug diversion court offers nonviolent defendants the chance to go through treatment in lieu of jail. If no money is found, drug court will go away by 2010; according to a 2006 study, each graduate of drug diversion court saves the state $14,848 due to reduced prison costs.
• Cuts to Discretionary Jail Programs. In addition to public-safety cuts, the county jail will save money by cutting the number of inmates in psychiatric housing (putting them instead in "community programs"); ending funding to the Central Area Motivation Program, which provides food, emergency shelter, job training, and housing; eliminating county funding for Sound Mental Health's prisoner re-entry program; and ending King County library services at county jails. And that's just the immediate cuts; long-term (as in, next year), cuts could include the Community Center for Alternative Programs, which provides classes and treatment to reduce recidivism; the Helping Hands program, which hooks ex-inmates up with community service; and the Learning Center, which provides job, literacy, and life-skills programs to former inmates.
• Chemical Dependency and Detox Programs. The county's budget could also eliminate or cut a number of programs aimed at helping former inmates with chemical-dependency problems, including chemical dependency classes for work-release inmates, housing vouchers for former inmates who get out of jail and have nowhere to go, help and supportive housing and detox case management for people who go through the county's sobering center and detox facilities.
• The Racial Disparity Project. The executive's budget would eliminate funding for the Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project, which helped kill a controversial Seattle impound law that disproportionately impacted poor people and minorities.
• Public Health. Public health is one of the areas hardest hit by Sims's budget proposal, in part because most of its programs are legally considered "discretionary." Sims's budget could reduce the county TB control program; eliminate a program that provides street outreach to pregnant women with substance-abuse problems; close the White Center Family Planning Clinic, which serves 2,500 clients, half of them uninsured, and eliminate family-planning services at two other public-health centers; eliminate or cut several programs that investigate communicable diseases like Hantavirus, bird flu, and hepatitis; eliminate all school-based dental health prevention programs outside Seattle; close the county's Northshore clinic, resulting in more "unintended pregnancies, more difficult pregnancies and more babies born underweight with associated health and developmental problems," according to the budget; eliminate visits to isolated seniors with chronic diseases in rural King County; and end vaccination services at some county health clinics, among many other cuts.
It's far from clear, of course, whether all the budget cuts Sims has proposed will actually be implemented. King County Council member Larry Phillips, who is thinking about challenging Sims for executive, may come out with a competing budget of his own. And there remains some mystery about how the county got in this crisis in the first place; three years ago, Sims declared the "turnaround complete, [the] county transformed," asserting that "Cost control, stable revenues and prudent management has put us on the verge of solving the structural deficit we faced these last few years." Two years later, the county budget has ballooned from $3.35 billion to $4.9 billion--a 50 percent increase. Could that extra spending help account for why the county currently finds itself in a budget crisis?
Second, Sims's proposal assumes county unions will make a number of large concessions, including accepting smaller cost-of-living increases than they agreed to in their contracts. So far, however, the unions have not agreed to any actual concessions, and some union members reportedly worry that reopening contract negotiations will lead to a major labor dispute.