County budget cuts scare citizens, officials

October 15, 2008

By Jon Savelle

At their first community meeting to discuss the $93.4 million shortfall in the 2009 King County budget, members of the King County Council came face to face with citizens’ concerns, worries and outright fear.

Some 60 people attended the Oct. 14 at the Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus, including Issaquah City Councilman David Kappler and North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing, who met briefly with County Council members prior to the public event.

What everyone wants to know is: How will the shortfall, and County Executive Ron Sims’ proposals for dealing with it, affect vital county services that constituents rely on?

Sims delivered his $4.9 billion budget proposal Oct. 13. Of that amount, the $644 million General Fund is where cuts have had to be made — slicing into jobs, services, programs, savings and reserves.

Funding for every major category of county government was reduced, including the Sheriff’s Office, Metro Transit, Superior Court, District Court, Public Health, Parks, Development and Environmental Services, the Water and Land Services Division, and Adult and Juvenile Detention.

Sims would use a $10.5 million reserve fund to provide a six-month “lifeline” for some services, mainly criminal justice, public health and human services, but even this would be exhausted if no help were forthcoming from the state Legislature in 2009.

With such measures as the backdrop, County Council Chairman Larry Phillips and members Bob Ferguson and Kathy Lambert hosted an informal meeting with local officials in the school‘s staff lounge. While just Hearing and Kappler were able to make it, their concerns doubtless are on the minds of many others.

Hearing’s chief worry is the cost of police services, for which North Bend contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office.

“Up to now, we have felt the service has been very cost effective,” he said.

But budget cuts will result in less service and probably higher costs. Hearing said he is particularly worried about his city’s costs in 2010.

He said he also worries about smaller but still critical institutions in North Bend: the Mount Si Helping Hand food bank and the senior center. The food bank, Hearing said, serves more than 1,100 people per week, and relies partly on county support for its operations.

So does the senior center, which Lambert said helps a network of Snoqualmie Valley residents. Some of them are in their 90s and subsisting on the single meal per day they receive from the center.

Another concern, and one Hearing shares with Kappler, is that Metro bus service should at least be maintained if not expanded. Recent service improvements to North Bend have been wildly popular, Hearing said, adding he believes riders would continue to take the bus even if fares were increased.

Kappler added a comment that Issaquah officials have expressed repeatedly: The Sound Transit service area should be expanded east to include Snoqualmie and North Bend. Those buses then could carry commuters who now must drive on Interstate 90, where they contribute to traffic congestion in Issaquah.

When it came to the public meeting, the three County Council members, plus colleagues Jane Hague and Pete von Reichbauer, heard a round of more personal and more anguished pleas for continued services.

Leading off was King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer, who said the court already had taken $4.5 million in cuts and faces another of $1 million.

“It will come from our Family Court services,” he said. “We have nowhere else to go to get this $1 million. And we don’t think we can do our job without that.”

A similar predicament has ensnared King County District Court. Chief Presiding Judge Barbara Linde said the court already was spread thin, thanks to earlier budget cuts, yet more are coming. These would eliminate discretionary programs that divert some 2,000 cases per year away from criminal trials, so the court would have to try them.

Kappler also spoke, saying that human services needs are going to go up as the economy sours, yet funding for them is getting slashed.

“That is not an acceptable situation,” he said. “And the lifeboat concept is kind of scary.”

It was the providers of human services who gave the most wrenching accounts of how county budget cuts will affect people. Sue Krahling, of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (not run by the county), said that without the $450,000 in annual support the agency receives from the county, its services would be drastically curtailed.

“If the cuts go forward, hundreds of victims and their families will be denied,” she said.

Most of those victims, she added, are children.

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

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