September 9, 2002
Commission to help with county gov't restructure
by Jeanette Knutson
Hold on to your hats (and wallets), folks. There's been another pronouncement from King County.
This time they want to re-invent or recreate or re-examine King County government. They want to hoist the writhing money-loser under a microscope, dissect its structure and trace its functions.
To be sure, scrutiny of the system isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The county faced a $41 million shortfall in 2002. Thanks to a hiring freeze in effect since November 2000, the making of six departments into two, the laying off of staff, the closing of parks, the reduction of hours at several service places, and the increase in certain fees (though initiatives have limited this), the council was able to balance the 2002 budget.
Now they're looking at a $52 million deficit for 2003, with a $110 million shortfall through 2005 looming on the horizon.
So a bi-partisan coalition representing each branch of county government made the announcement last week.
King County Executive Ron Sims, Council Chair Cynthia Sullivan (District 2), King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng and King County Superior Court Judge Richard D. Eadie will select a nine-member commission (unsalaried, according to Sims' spokesperson Elaine Kraft), charged with coming up with ways to re-engineer county government. Labor, academia, law, finance and government - among others - will be represented on the commission. Appointments are expected by Dec. 6. A final report to the council is due July 1, 2003.
Everything is fair game for inspection. Everything.
The "King County Commission on Governance" will study a longtime bugaboo, the current expense fund, for example.
According to spokeswoman Kraft, "This fund is where property taxes come into and must fund all legally mandated services, such as records, elections, courts, prosecutors, jails ... and we have also been able to fund parks and human services from this fund. All other services have designated funds that cannot be used for anything other than that specific purpose, for example, transit for buses and sewers for water quality, etc. The problem is that criminal justice services now take up more than two-thirds of the current expense fund - almost 70 percent. Initiatives have capped that fund at 1 percent growth - below the rate of inflation. This means funds have to be spent for required things and other stuff must go, like parks and human services.
"This was all set up when the counties were set up, in 1850! (Obviously,) things have changed some (since then) but not our revenue stream or use of it.
"Cities have many other taxes, but counties only have property tax. And with so many cities incorporated, the dollars go to the cities and we (the county) only have unincorporated rural area revenues coming (in) to fund major regional services like criminal justice."
Back in March, commenting about the budget outlook for 2003, Sims made a number of recommendations:
¥ "Structural changes for local services, such as either a new local unincorporated revenue source to pay for basic services to the urbanized populations of unincorporated King County or those populations need to be annexed to cities who have the revenue authority to pay for urban services.
¥ "Structural changes for regional services, such as a new countywide revenue authority that keeps pace with inflationary costs to pay for regional justice services or we need to be relieved of the statutory duty to provide those services.
¥ "We will continue our hiring freeze, restrict purchases ..., make mid-year 2002 reductions to avoid more abrupt cuts in 2003, work with the separately elected officials to hold their costs down, seek revenue relief and work toward annexation of urban unincorporated areas."
One would imagine the commission would consider Sims' "remedies" and others. A King County press release mentioned "modifying or repealing existing employment policies; determining if elected county officials should be partisan or nonpartisan; determining if county officials should be elected or appointed; potentially changing the size and structure of King County government, including all elective county offices; potentially changing the size and structure of the King County Council, including the number of council members, staffing and salaries."
Council member Kathy Lambert (District 3) said in a phone interview, "A lot of things need to be changed." In her opinion, raising taxes, annexing unincorporated areas and cutting services is one paradigm; but doing these things is "thinking inside the box," she said. It is her hope that the experts on this new commission will "... be very bold, forward thinking, willing to take risks ... not tinker around the edges."
Said Lambert, "County government is not keeping pace with changes in our society. It is systematically set up to create duplications, little fiefdoms and inefficiencies. We need more cooperation, more collaboration between agencies. ... Government is in the business of doing services - efficiently, fairly, properly. It is there for the people and it wants to meet their needs. But right now people don't feel they're getting their money's worth. Citizens don't trust government. We need to work on that," said Lambert.
Said spokeswoman Kraft on behalf of Executive Sims, "It is imperative - in the 21st century, that we have a government that reflects the realities of the 21st century, not one created and virtually unchanged since the 1850s. We will look at every aspect of our governance, and it may require changes from the state or at the ballot. But we will have a government of the 21st century for our residents to ensure they get the best service delivery in the most cost-effective manner possible."