Ron Sims: Gambling Man

The King County Executive’s plan for saving the county budget depends on sinking multiple bank shots.

For the first time since King County Executive Ron Sims announced that the county's general fund would run a deficit in 2009, now over $93 million short, he and adversarial King County Council member Larry Phillips agree on something--county government should shut down for 10 days next year. It's a strange turn in an already unconventional budget process. Sims announced his plan for dealing with the problem on October 13. First he made drastic cuts, handing out pink slips to 126 staffers in those departments that are paid for out of the county's general fund—mostly the justice system and public health. He made up some more though proposals from the departments themselves to save cash. For instance, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg agreed to charge small property crimes and drug offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies—a cheaper process and easier to plead. Sims will also move his own offices from the 32nd floor of the former Bank of America building to the new Chinook building at Fifth and Jefferson, which Sims says will save $2 million over the next five years. But Sims warned the heads of agencies paid for by the general fund that they would have to make additional cuts unless he could squeeze more concessions out of the employees. He threatened to cut another 120 jobs, a striking reminder of the stakes. Sims said he would ask all employees to accept a reduction of their cost-of-living raises next year from almost 5 percent to 3 percent with no earned raises. Sims has the authority to make nonunion employees take the cut, but some 12,500 of the 14,000 King County employees are represented and work under contracts negotiated by Sims. Sims told the criminal justice and public health agencies to plan for more cuts while he renegotiated with the unions. Sims' plan was immediately blasted at a joint press conference held by Satterberg, Sheriff Sue Rahr, and Superior and District Court presiding judges Bruce Hilyer and Barbara Linde. They called Sims' plan unacceptable, saying it would pit union and nonunion employees against each other. All four said there was nothing left to give. Phillips, seriously considering a run against Sims next year, joined the group and called Sims' budget unbalanced. But Sims managed to pull the rabbit out of his hat. This week, union representatives refused to give up the cost-of-living raises, but did agree to bring to their members a proposal that they take 10 days off, unpaid. Most of the days fall near other holidays, essentially creating a series of four-day weekends throughout the year. Sims announced the agreement Monday, and within two hours the County Council, including Phillips, praised the move. "We're pleased that the unions made concessions that will be very helpful to us in closing this budget," Phillips says. The union rank and file still need to vote on the deal, says Dustin Frederick, co-chair of the King County Coalition of Unions. Sims claims the vote is just a formality, and that he has the authority to force people to take the unpaid time off—called furloughs. Frederick says the coalition has an attorney looking into that. "That is definitely a piece of information that our members need to have before they vote on it." But Sims's biggest political gamble is still looming. He created what he's calling a "lifeboat." Using $10.5 million from reserves set aside during previous budget cycles, he's going to fund, for six months, a host of programs that no politician would likely want to cut: mental health court, domestic-violence prevention, and the White Center family planning clinic, among others. About 111 employees' jobs are at stake. He's going to take that lifeboat down to Olympia, and in effect threaten to sink it unless the state legislature does his bidding. Topping the list of "must pass" items is the property tax cap. Sims isn't alone in saying the current 1 percent limit on hiking the tax is crippling—Phillips, considering a run against Sims next year, agrees. According to them, property tax is one of the general fund's biggest sources of revenue. But holding the money stream at a 1 percent increase while the cost of governing goes up much faster—they buy that expensive gas too—almost guarantees a deficit. Sims would like the legislature to change the cap to track inflation, rather than being a fixed amount. But getting that change will be tricky. Voters passed the Tim Eyman–sponsored initiative establishing the cap with 58 percent of the vote in 2001. Last year, the state Supreme Court threw the initiative out, but Gov. Chris Gregoire, with support from state House Speaker Frank Chopp, called a special November session to reinstate it. Only 17 of the 146 state legislators in the House and Senate voted against the cap. Also on Sims' agenda is legislation that would force neighboring cities to annex urban areas like White Center, where right now the county has to provide urban-level services without the taxing authority granted to municipalities. Under current state rules, it's easy for one party or the other—the residents of an unincorporated area or of its nearest city—to put the brakes on annexations. (Witness the unending tussle over the fate of White Center.) Phillips was telling reporters within minutes of Sims' Oct. 13 budget address that the whole proposal is a non-starter. "We are going to have to start, apparently, from scratch," he said at the conference. But Sims thinks that after the dust settles the council will end up passing the budget as is anyway. He's cut everything else he can, Sims says. "Where are they going to find the money to sustain themselves?" he asks of the council. Bolstering his position, Sims announced that his much-vaunted AAA credit rating remains intact, even after two rating agencies reviewed his budget proposal. One of those agencies, Standard and Poor's, gave Sims a pass on pulling money from reserves, noting in a rating report that he left $60 million in the backup fund untouched. lonstot@seattleweekly.com

 
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