Ron Sims is sick of the “ hot rhetoric ” that’s followed every budget-related press release, estimate adjustment, and e-mail since his office first announced>"/>
Ron Sims is sick of the “hot rhetoric” that’s followed every budget-related press release, estimate adjustment, and e-mail since his office first announced a projected $25 million deficit for 2009 last November--now pushing triple digits. But there was no letting up, from either side, as Sims announced a 2009 budget with shrunken agencies, 400 axed positions, and two huge bets.
Running King County in 2009 will cost $4.9 billion, according to Sims’ executive summary. Much of that is funded by set grants, tax revenues, and other funding streams created by the state and federal governments. But the general fund is nearly all property and sales tax revenues that haven’t kept pace with an increasingly expensive operation. County courts, cops, and some public health agencies get their money out of the general fund, facing a $93.4 million shortage in 2009 at last count, followed by another $100 million or so over the next two years.
As Sims’ 1:30 unveiling drew near, people packed into what is normally a pretty vacant counsel chambers. Sheriff Sue Rahr, one of Sims’ most outspoken critics, sat front and center.
Prior to making the announcement, chair Julia Patterson gave Larry Phillips—possibly taking a run at Sims’ spot next year—the floor. He fired a few shots across the bow, saying he expected the budget to be balanced, preserve health and safety and minimize any service reductions to the suburbs (sorry rural areas, very little mention of you.) Jane Hague, Bob Fergson, and Kathy Lambert also mentioned concerns about performance measures, public health and farmers respectively. Then Dow Constantine and Reagan Dunn escorted the Exec into chambers.
“I am honored to be here today and end the suspense,” Sims said. Adding that his budget: “is perfect.” A line played for laughs, but not a theme he gave up either.
The budget was balanced through some traditional cuts—including axing positions in the Executive branch and moving his offices to the newer King County office building—something the council rejected. Another 400 jobs will be axed tomorrow, he added. Sims later clarified that the 400 would come through a combination of freezing vacancies and layoffs in numbers still being determined. Also, all non-union jobs will be held to a 3 percent cost of living raise, rather than the 5.5 percent that would be expected under the current formula for determining those raises.
But not all the programs were cut—things like mental health court and clinics that were on the chopping block have been given a six month lifeline with money out of reserves. They will be allowed to operate until June 29, and if money and the legislative changes necessary to get that money haven’t happened by then, the programs will go.
Sims calls the lifeboat “an inventive and unconventional tool.” It focuses on two gambles for saving the budget requiring help from parties who aren’t known for giving it. First, he wants the union members to also take a lower 3 percent cost of living raise. Their contracts give them the 5.5 percent so they’ll have to agree to the shortfall. Second and even bigger, Sims needs changes to the legislative funding structure. The biggest changes are axing the 1 percent property-tax, something brought back in a special legislative session after the Tim Eyman initiative was thrown out in court, and changing rules to allow counties to move money between funds more easily.
He finished his address by thanking three members of the audience, council members Pete von Reichbauer (from the other side of the political aisle), Larry Gossett, and prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Sims noted that those people had avoided the “hot rhetoric” of others in through the budget process to this point—he didn’t actually look at Phillips when he said it, but the council member’s face was pretty red. Or maybe that was just the heat from a crowded room. Phillips did get an obligatory embrace before Sims left the room.
As soon as it was over, Phillips, Ferguson, Lambert, Hague and everyone from public safety—including Satterberg--squished into an adjacent conference room and blasted the budget. “Those are hopes and dreams,” Phillips said of the proposal, adding that the council would have to start from scratch. “We can’t count on that.”
Public safety piled on with a letter, signed by all the department heads--including Satterberg, saying that Sims’ reliance on the 3 percent cost of living adjustments was too much of a gamble, pits the union workers against the non-union and all after revising their cuts up from 8.6 percent to 11.4 percent. Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer describes the union move as the straw that broke the camel’s back for public safety.
“When you get in a lifeboat,” Lambert said later, “it’s because the ship is sinking.”
And of course, there’s the fact that the budget deficit numbers have been a moving target over the last several months. “Our budget situation is as clear as the situation on Wall Street, which is to say pretty chaotic.” Phillips said after the conference, laughing.
Sims had his chance to shoot back at his own press conference on the heels of the council remarks. His voice nearly broke as he blasted unnamed members (give you one guess) for actions he derides as immature. The budget is balanced, he insisted, and not just on hypotheticals, but with spending freezes that will protect agencies in case the unions aren’t willing to take the lower raises—though he insists he’s very optimistic they’ll accept the cut.
As to his dependence on Olympia, Sims says the lifeboat programs would have been axed anyway, by putting them on temporary life support, the legislature will see how failing to resolve the funding problem will impact King County residents. He also is optimistic there that the tight squeeze facing other counties will put added pressure on state legislators to act.
“This is disappointing, quite frankly,” Sims said later, referring to the dueling press conferences, but also, presumably, to the entire, acrimonious process and the heated exchanges that are sure to come.