A Sims-Sized Job

RON SIMS, I want you to save human services.

Now, I know that you will object to me putting it that bluntly. You’d prefer: King County Executive Sims, while I appreciate the high overall level of human-services spending in the King County government, including $184 million in human-services money from the Legislature and Congress that the county uses to run programs, I must take issue with your proposal to reduce the $15.9 million in human services funding from the county’s general fund budget by 44 percent in 2003 and perhaps as much as 100 percent in 2004.

While I admit your version is more accurate, it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I know you care about the programs made possible by King County’s $15.9 million. That money funds food banks, aids disabled people, provides drug and alcohol counseling, and backs youth and family support programs. Hell, you helped create some of these programs when you were on the King County Council.

I also know that the county budget is in a world of hurt. The recession, a declining tax base due to annexations, Tim Eyman’s crappy initiatives, rising health-care costs for county employees, and skyrocketing criminal-justice expenses have combined to create a $41 million deficit this year (already cut), a $52 million deficit next year, and a $24 million deficit in 2004.

Nobody in their right mind can say you have an easy job. You work longer hours than I ever have. You make tougher decisions that affect people’s lives in ways I never could. I know you get up every day and try to find the best ways out of this terrible budget crisis.

I also know that you feel the King County Alliance for Human Services has been unfair in the way it’s conducted its campaign to save that $15.9 million. You told me last week, “I’m from an old school. You never whack your friends. [Members of the Alliance] are doing that. You work with your friends. They chose not to do that. It’s a very odd approach.”

The Alliance is not trying to demonize you, but it does disagree with your budget proposals. Says Alliance member Tony Lee, public policy director for the Fremont Public Association: “This is an honest policy difference. [Sims] is not willing to give higher priority to human services.”

Don’t let this go to your head, Ron, but you are a dynamo. You have glorious eloquence. If you decided to go to every corner of this county and speak out about the need to help the poorest among us, people would listen. If you asked a group of citizens from business, labor, and the community to work on the problem, they would step forward. If you said King County must rise to the occasion because we are a compassionate, caring community, we would try to rise. You have the ability to inspire us.

I’m not going to pretend that all of your perspiration could work magic. We still might not be able to save the $15.9 million. But I’d like you to try.

OK, now let’s evaluate my idea politically, because after all, you’re a politician. I’ll admit it’s pretty goofy from that perspective. You’d be forever cast as a bleeding-heart liberal—that’s a label conservatives are already dying to stick on you if you run for governor or some other statewide office in 2004.

A lot of spin doctors and consultants would wonder if you’d lost your mind. Social justice—it’s a throwback to some crackpot ’60s idealism, they’d say. Of course, Howland can spout that bunk from his comfy little Seattle Weekly soapbox, they’d observe, but you have to work in the real world. You have to survive in the political jungle where conservatives are just lying in wait to get control of the courthouse and the state Leg and just whack that human services stuff even more.

But here’s my point, Ron. I don’t see why Democrats like you bother if you let political “reality” dictate everything. What about defining the debate yourself instead of letting it define you? If King County can’t come up with a way to save $15.9 million in human services, why bother to run government at all? To run a really great King County Jail? To efficiently manage the sewage system? Ron Sims is meant for so much more than that.

The crisis in human need in this state is just going to get worse. Seattle has a $60 million deficit. The state is facing a $2 billion shortfall. We have to start now, and you are poised at the crucial intersection. Your budget is the first one to tackle this crisis, and we need a leader—a really strong, charismatic one—who can embolden us to grapple with it instead of just turning away.

I’m nominating you. What do you think?