You Just Can't Get a Threat to Work in This County Anymore

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Triplett says the parks are dead.
Yesterday, the King County Budget and Fiscal Management committee took up proposals from Executive Kurt Triplett to put raises in the sales and property taxes on the ballot this November. The committee left the sales tax on the floor and voted down the property tax. Because of that, Triplett says, all county parks in unincorporated areas will close and a good chunk of public health clinics will go too. "What you're going to get is a zeroing out of human services," he says.

It's not the first time a County Exec has threatened massive cuts. During the last round of budgeting up at the County Courthouse, Ron Sims dreamed up his lifeboat. Basically, in order to lessen the impact of a $93 million shortfall, Sims took a bunch of popular programs like public health clinics, funded them for six months, and called it a "lifeboat." Then he floated the whole thing down to Olympia and threatened to sink it if the legislature didn't give the county new taxing authority.

Olympia didn't bite. But when the deadline passed at the beginning of this month, we discovered that just because you say something will die doesn't mean it actually does. Much of the proposed cuts went into effect, including a school dental program. But last week, the council passed a 'life jacket" that funded things like disease investigations and public clinics through the end of the year by instituting a hiring freeze and cutting administrative staff.

But this time, Triplett insists, it's no idle threat. The parks are going to shutter and public health will be gutted. But Council Member Bob Ferguson, the deciding vote against the tax increases, doesn't think so.

Ferguson, one of the three Democrats on the committee, jumped ship and voted with the Republicans to kill the property tax hike saying it hadn't been studied enough. By phone today, Ferguson calls Triplett's assertion the county parks are done premature. Last year, he says, Sims tried to cut a public clinic in Ferguson's district. But when the budget went to the council, they cut things like an expensive upgrade to the voicemail system and a Kingdome archive project and managed to keep the doors open. "You find 50 grand here, a couple hundred grand there, and the next thing you know, we've saved a public health clinic," Ferguson says. "It's actually premature to say by not taking this tax vote, x, y, and z will happen."

Ferguson does acknowledge that sorting out the budget this year and next will be difficult. But he's hoping a boost to the human services levy can help alleviate some of the pressure. After that the council will look for other places to try and nickel and dime themselves out of the hole.

Triplett says that because the committee did not actually vote on his proposal to increase the sales tax, he will try to bring it before the entire council on Monday. But even if the tax proposals made the ballot, Triplett says his budget proposal this fall will still include massive cuts, including the parks. The best any new taxes could do, he says, is restore funding at the beginning of next year.

And even with new taxes there's still a several million dollar gap in covering this year's deficit, Triplett says. "We're going to do all that and we'll have $25 million left to go," he says. "I'll be honest, I have no idea what the next Exec is going to do in the 2011 budget."

UPDATE:

I originally reported that all county parks will close. Not true. Only the 39 parks in unincorporated areas will close. The county actually runs a total of 180 parks, says County Department of Natural Resources and Parks spokesperson Doug Williams.

 
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