The COLA Challenge

Can Dow Constantine get a tax hike passed without concessions from county workers?

In a likely preview of the upcoming political campaign, King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert says that if public-employee unions aren't willing to take pay or benefit cuts, she'll vote against County Executive Dow Constantine's proposal to put a 0.2 percent sales-tax increase on the ballot in August. "I think that everybody in the county needs to help and to be willing to make some sacrifices," she told Seattle Weekly this week. [Note: This story previously stated that the proposed increase is 2 percent and has been corrected.] Constantine announced his proposal last week, saying it is needed to help close a projected $60 million deficit in the county general fund next year. The fund mostly pays for cops, courts, and public health.The council will decide on May 17 whether or not to put the tax increase on the ballot. As part of the unofficial Republican minority (the county is technically nonpartisan), Lambert probably can't stop it, but her opposition will likely be echoed by financially stressed voters, resentful of the cushy packages enjoyed by unionized government workers. And some newly released information about the cost of county employees is likely to add to that resentment.According to a report from county staff presented to the council last week, while there's been a decrease in the number of employees paid out of the general fund, the cost per employee has gone up dramatically.Lambert notes that county employees received so-called "cost of living" raises of at least 2 percent, thanks to their union contracts, even as the actual cost of living went down during the recession. She says that unless union representatives say they are willing to freeze wage increases in bad years and contribute some kind of monthly premium for the cost of their medical care, she won't support the tax increase.David Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council, refuses to address whether or not the unions would be willing to consider such concessions. "I'll tell you what's a non-starter is politicians that try to negotiate their labor agreements through the media," he says. "It's really disappointing to hear that Councilmember Lambert thinks it would be effective."If history is a guide, the unions aren't likely to give much ground. Ron Sims tried to get the unions to accept a cut to their guaranteed cost-of-living raises in 2008, but they refused.

 
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