Budget Talk: What I’m Hearing

Last week, we began our review of the $11 billion Proposed Budget for the 2017/2018 biennium.  Throughout our process, the Council will evaluate hundreds of proposals across the government, from increasing the property tax levy supporting the County’s walk-on ferry system, to what new behavioral health programs to fund, to adding 300,000 services hours to Metro Transit, among many other issues. king-county-general-fund

Much of our time will be taken up with the General Fund, which funds our criminal justice system and started the year with a $50 million deficit.  In an $11 billion budget, you could reasonably assume that a $50 million hole shouldn’t be that hard to fill, but the rules around the “color of money” make it very challenging.  The taxes collected for the ferry system have to be spent on the ferry system and transit fares have to be spend on transit service, and so on.  Ironically, the one source of flexible money that can be spent on anything is the General Fund, which is the fund in the biggest trouble this year.

As is traditional, our budget review kicked off last week with a presentation by King County’s separately elected officials, who are all funded out of the General Fund. The persistent theme of the morning was the pain of making cuts budget after budget and the resulting decline in the County’s ability to provide effective and efficient public safety system for its residents.

The Executive’s Proposed Budget contains over $20 million of reductions to criminal justice agencies.  It includes some high profile proposals, such as shutting down the Sheriff’s Air Support and Marine Units, which could potentially put public safety at risk. The Executive has also proposed a $2 million cut to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which will likely further increase the amount of time needed to resolve a criminal case, leaving victims and defendants uncertain of their futures, among other possible impacts to the prosecutorial function.

This is a theme we have heard before as the County’s General Fund has made hundreds of millions of dollars of reductions in the last 15 years.  With every deficit, public safety leaders and staff have worked with the Executive and Council to balance the budget and, somehow, to keep providing high-quality service to the public.

Our collective success in solving deficits over the years has masked the fundamental problem that is slowly eating away at our public safety agencies:  the largest source of revenue to the General Fund is the property tax, which is limited to 1% annual growth, due to a 2001 Tim Eyman initiative that was enacted by the State Legislature.  Because inflation and population growth usually run about 3%, there is a chronic shortfall in the General Fund.  While our economy booms and our population grows, the 1% property tax cap means that key parts of our government are shrinking and are increasingly unable to meet the needs of our residents.

As Chair of the Human Services and Criminal Justice Panel, I will work with my colleagues to find ways to reduce the negative impacts of this budget on our residents, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that unless the State Legislature acts to address the property tax limit the separately elected officials will be back in two years to report on how the County’s ability to meet its public safety responsibilities continues to deteriorate and eventually will fail.