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Friday, October 24, 2008

I Read the County Budget So You Don’t Have To

posted by on October 24 at 16:35 PM

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.

RSS icon Comments


Call me a category nerd, but I don't think stuff about the county budget belongs under city.

Posted by Mike in Renton | October 24, 2008 4:50 PM

Thanks, Erica! Unfortunately, I now feel a little less sympathy for the bike incentive program biting the dust.

Posted by lily | October 24, 2008 4:53 PM

You missed one BIG cut. Under Sims' proposal, the prosecutor's office is cut by 5% and the Office of Public Defense is cut by 3 times that amount at 15.9%. And they weren't equal to begin with. So much for justice in King County.

Posted by Rita | October 24, 2008 4:56 PM

Mandatory 10-day furloughs at the KCPAO according to the proposal sent out by Dan Satterburg this afternoon in an all-staff email. Oh well, at least we might get to keep the COLAs.

And I agree with you Rita@3 -- no one's been talking about the cuts to OPD. A lot of people at the prosecutor's office are pissed about them as well. Good public defenders are critical to the system.

Posted by Good Times | October 24, 2008 5:10 PM

This title is stupid considering now that you've read it and reported it, i feel obligated to double check your comprehension.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | October 24, 2008 5:29 PM

Out of curiosity, where did you get those percentages? The budget for OPD is largely driven by the number of cases filed (they get $x for each misdemeanor and $y for each felony). I think a lot of the shift for OPD is the fact that many cases will now be filed as misdemeanors, rather than felonies, but without being able to look at the stats, I'm not sure.

Posted by Gidge | October 24, 2008 5:35 PM

Sounds like the Stranger is sweet on a Larry P run. Thats all fine and dandy, but where is Larry P getting the money from?

I am all for competitive races,and candidates who can solve problems, but Larry p just seems like an opportunist with a lot of hot air and an Eddie Munster hair cut.

All of Washington's counties are in deep shit, not just King County. It seems to be a result, at least to me, of Eyman's initiatives as well as people expecting counties to pay for services, such as public health, but not wanting to pay taxes.

I would love to see Larry P's "alternative" budget.

Posted by Louie | October 24, 2008 6:41 PM

I contend that King County could save tens of thousands of dollars a year by putting a cap on overtime claims from high-seniority jail guards. Every few years one of the dailies prints a list of the year's highest paid county employees, and it will turn out that a select few senior jail guards typically claim and get paid for more overtime hours than base hours. If my memory serves, even the County Executive gets paid substantially less per year than those senior jail guards who know how to manipulate the system.

I urge The Stranger to check into how much in overtime bonuses King County doled out to its senior jail staff last year.

Posted by Creek | October 24, 2008 7:05 PM

You call it "public safety" ... I call it fear-mongering.

There is NO reason why the share of the county budget going to police, jails, and courts should increase FASTER than the increase in population EACH AND EVERY YEAR for the past few decades.


Posted by Will in Seattle | October 24, 2008 8:19 PM

So what I'm curious about: let's say we wanted to save any or all of these programs, especially the mental health court (which is a resounding success). Then what is Sims proposing to still fund that that maybe doesn't deserve continued funding? Given the shortfall, cuts have to occur somewhere, what kinds of priorities is Sims setting?

Posted by Simac | October 25, 2008 12:00 AM

A lot of these programs shouldn't of been funded with tax dollars to begin with & then maybe people whom think they should be funded will find ways to find them without tax dollars.

Posted by ABM | October 25, 2008 6:10 PM

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