City wary of county budget woes

October 1, 2008

By Jon Savelle

King County’s 2009 budget has a $90 million hole in it, and officials in cities like Issaquah are concerned that they may be asked to patch it up.

The problem is in the general fund, a $662 million portion of the county’s $4.9 billion budget. Estimates of the size of the shortfall increased steadily over the summer, with the King County Council declaring Aug. 4 that its first funding priorities would be public safety, health and quality of life.

After that, the priority is to find places to cut spending.

“Our challenge is how to address the fundamental core services,” said King County Executive Ron Sims, who was in Issaquah Sept. 29 for the launch of the zHome high-efficiency housing project. He said cities should not be affected directly.

But members of the Suburban Cities Association, a consortium of 37 smaller cities in King County, are concerned about the implications of the county’s budget hole. Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger said she and her colleagues worry that services now provided by the county could shift down to them — at greater cost to the cities.

One example could occur in the criminal justice system.

“Things previously seen as felonies could be seen as misdemeanors,” Frisinger said.

That would place the burden of prosecution and incarceration on cities rather than the county.

It could happen with a simple dollar test. Burglaries causing a certain dollar loss, which now qualify as felonies, could be considered misdemeanors if the dollar figure for a misdemeanor simply were raised.

Cities are trying to avoid this by helping King County lobby the state for assistance. Frisinger said many services now provided by the county are actually state functions, so it would help if the state paid for them or just provided the service itself.

Otherwise, the County Council is considering several ways to cut costs. Among them are shedding unincorporated county land by annexing it to cities; selling surplus land; re-evaluating capital projects; considering more or higher fees; reducing the number of state inmates in county jails and emphasizing service for cities, who pay more per bed; and asking elected officials to determine how much overhead service, such as janitorial and fleet maintenance, they are willing to forego.

Sims must approve such ideas, and state funding is up to the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire. But the state also has a budget deficit, a whopping $3.2 billion. How to close that gap will be the No. 1 task of the upcoming legislative session.

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com.

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