As swine flu takes over the front pages of newspapers and sends hypochondriacs into a panic every time they sneeze, King County politicians and department


Sims' Lifeboat Sinks

As swine flu takes over the front pages of newspapers and sends hypochondriacs into a panic every time they sneeze, King County politicians and department heads are scrambling to find a way to save more than $3.5 million worth of public health programs after Ron Sims' attempt to save the budget through what he called a "lifeboat" failed.

To balance out a $93 million deficit, Sims made drastic cuts across the county, but not everything got the ax. Hoping that Olympia would pass bills allowing the county to raise money through new taxes, he funded feel-good things like kid's care at community clinics around the region and a dental program in low-income schools for six months. One of the more ill-timed potential cuts included in the vessel is a reduction to communicable disease investigations, the program that tracks the spread of infections, like swine flu, through the county. Once the details were hammered out by the council, it totaled about $8 million.

Sims then threatened to sink it if Olympia didn't pass bills allowing the county to raise significantly more cash by either lifting the property tax cap or giving the county the power to levy additional utility taxes. The council approved the scheme unanimously. But, Olympia didn't approve any of those increased taxes and now the boat is scheduled to sink on June 30.

So maybe it's a good thing for Sims that he's not running again this year. After announcing the lifeboat plan with much fanfare last fall, Sims didn't even mention it in a press release praising the things King County did get in Olympia.

County health department spokesperson James Apa says that now, between meetings to come up with a plan for dealing with that Swine Flu epidemic, his department is working to prioritize the programs that were in the lifeboat and then plans to see if they can shift money around to keep them going. "But we didn't get a new revenue source for some of our critical services that are in the lifeboat," he says.

Apa adds that it's unlikely the county will be able to keep most of the items in the boat going. That means the total number of clinic visits provided to low-income kids will go down by over 1,000, and the in-school dental program will disappear. The communicable disease investigations won't cease completely, but the budget for the program, which tracks infections when they spread through the county, is set to be cut by $38,000. Cutting that "is something we would certainly need to evaluate," Apa says.

There were several things outside the lifeboat that the county was also seeking from Olympia. And in general, the county got most of what it wanted in a rather vicious Olympia fight. Rep. Ross Hunter, a Medina Democrat also running for county executive, introduced bills containing everything on the county's wish list including new taxes to fund the lifeboat. But as the details were hammered out, those taxes were cut.

By the time the final version reached the Senate floor, passing by only one vote, it only allowed the county to raise taxes to cover additional deficits, not fund programs like those in the boat. It also allowed for a little more flexibility in how the county uses the money. For instance, voters approved a 5 cent property tax levy in 2005 to create new mental health programs. But now the county would rather use the money to keep existing things like Mental Health Court going (it's not in the six-month life boat, but it is only funded through the end of this year). State law didn't allow them to move the cash around, but thanks to the bill that passed, they can now do that.

But Apa says the county doesn't have enough cash to just shift things around to save the lifeboat itself. So if you were depending on the school to do your kid's sealants next year, you might want to start looking for a good dentist.

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